Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2011

The Nuts and Bolts of #OccupyWallStreet

Filed under: anti-capitalism,financial crisis,Pham Binh — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm


The Nuts and Bolts of #OccupyWallStreet
By Pham Binh
September 29, 2011 | Posted in IndyBlog | Email this article

On day 12 of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), I helped moderate a meeting of the “open source” OWS working group by keeping a list of speakers and co-chairing. I am not sure what the open source group is supposed to do exactly, but I decided to attend this meeting after watching a middle-aged man call in the General Assembly for developing demands and goals on the OWS live feed and people in the crowd telling him the open source working group was tasked with this.

After the daily 1 p.m. General Assembly meeting ended, OWS divided into its working groups, including media, labor, outreach, and a number of others. I walked over and sat down next to the point person (or “ leader”) of the working group, a young white guy in his twenties who looked like a 60s throwback with his long, straight hippy-style hair, rainbow tights, fatigue shirt, and Ziploc bag of rolling papers. Of course, you can never judge a book by its cover — he is also a student of behavioral economics and mentioned that academic studies have shown that the OWS’s decentralized, highly participatory, and lengthy process of dialogue is the best way to organize.

The open source meeting swelled very quickly to 20 or 30 people, an indication that a lot of people want to figure out what OWS’s demands should be. The group moderator remarked that the group was so big it was practically a “second General Assembly.” His brief introduction to the process whereby OWS would define its vision (he repeatedly used the phrase “visioning”) was interrupted as many hands went up, asking to be called on; at least 10 people wanted to speak and each was allowed a minute and a half.

What emerged from the discussion was that there is no consensus that demands are even necessary. Quite a few protesters argued along the lines that this is movement or process of dialogue is the demand/goal and that therefore demands are not necessary; one said our demand to the world should that they “join us.” Two older people, one in his sixties, the other in his thirties, spoke out for having clear, specific demands as being a very necessary step to creating a sustainable protest, much less a movement.

I argued that a few concrete, achievable demands were important, citing the “Day of Wrath” protest on January 25, 2011 that began the revolution in Egypt that demanded raising the minimum wage, an end to the dictatorship’s “emergency laws,” the firing of the interior minister, and a two term presidency. I explained that Mubarak’s ouster was not one of their original demands, but it became a demand once millions of people became involved in the movement, and therefore demands can and should change depending on circumstances. My suggested demand was to raise taxes on the 1%, something the New York state legislature and the city council could vote to do immediately.

One woman argued against having demands on the grounds that the media wanted us to do exactly that, that it would be a way for them to put us in a nice neat little confining box the better to ignore us; instead, she proposed we copy the model used to write grant proposals and draw up a mission statement, goals, and objectives. The moderator took to this and we dispersed into six groups of five or so to discuss what motivated us to protest and what our “visions” (or goals, long and short term) were; after the break out, we would reconvene to sum up and share what each of our groups had come up with in the hopes of finding some type of consensus that would inform some sort of statement to the world.

The OWS political process is very participatory, cumbersome, and time-consuming. One strength of their process is that it avoids the top-down control that Wisconsin’s union leaders exercised to scuttle the protests and developing strike wave that shook the state in favor of harmless (and ultimately fruitless) recall efforts.

To participate and help shape OWS politically requires dedicating many, many waking hours every day to ongoing, continuous debates and discussions. This is not necessarily a bad thing but in practice ends up favoring the participation of those who can afford to skip work and/or school for a week or more. With unemployment over 9% (a figure even higher for the 18-25 age group), it should be no surprise that these are the people taking the fight to the enemy’s lair.

It may be that OWS never develops a clear set of demands. OWS seems to be headed toward issuing a general statement akin to the Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962, although it will probably be less wordy and much darker. Port Huron spoke moralistically of the highly privileged lives led by America’s post-World War Two college students that stood in start contrast to the conditions facing black and brown people in the Jim Crow south, America’s urban ghettos, and the Third World. Today, students face the prospect of lifelong debt, serial dead-end jobs, and holding two or even three part-time jobs just to keep up with the bills and rent, just like the non-college educated working class.

Whatever OWS decides with regards to demands, they deserve credit for putting their finger on the real enemy and being brave enough to defy the police and break the law to make the voices of their generation heard.

Everyone who can should go and help occupy Wall Street.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch, and International Socialist Review. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net

September 29, 2011

Mobilize to protest cop attacks in NYC

Filed under: financial crisis,repression — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

New Yorkers should turn out tomorrow from 5:30 to 7pm at One Police Plaza tomorrow. Back in the old days when I was in the SWP the party used to vote to “mobilize” its members to go to a demo or a conference during the Vietnam antiwar movement. The Marxism mailing list and the Unrepentant Marxist blog does not have anything quite like this, given our rather disembodied cyber-existence. Anyhow I plan to be there and hope to see you there as well.

Details are here:

Friday, September 30 · 5:30pm – 7:00pm


Created By

More Info
(NYPD Headquarters is located on Park Row across the street from City Hall and through the Municpal Buildings archway)

We the undersigned condemn recent police attacks against the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations underway in Lower Manhattan. The NYPD has:

-pepper sprayed people in custody
-violently arrested non violent demonstrators
-curtailed the expressive activities of demonstrators in Liberty Square

All of this is part of a long standing practice of the NYPD to make public protest extremely difficult, unpleasant, and even dangerous.

Join us in calling for an end to police repression of protests in New York, and to support the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration.

Bring signs and soapboxes/milkcrates

Please invite your friends. To sign onto this call, add your name to the wall and we will add people to the official list as best we can. Please include any relevant identifying information.

[Organizations listed for identification purposes only.]

Alex S. Vitale, author of City of Disorder, Brooklyn College, Executive Council PSC-CUNY
Penny Lewis, Murphy Institute for Labor Education, Executive Council PSC-CUNY
Francis Fox Piven, CUNY Graduate Center
Stanley Aronowitz, CUNY Graduate Center
Leslie Cagan, peace and justice organizer
Larry Goldbetter, President, National Writers Union
Jonathan Tasini, President, Economic Future Group
Jackie DiSalvo, Baruch College
Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos, Brooklyn College
Ben Shepard, author of The Beach Beneath the Streets, NYC College of Technology-CUNY
Michele Hardesty, Hampshire College
Ron Hayduk, author of Democracy for All, BMCC-CUNY
Mitchel Cohen, Brooklyn Greens/Green Party. Chair of WBAI Local Station Board
Doug Henwood, Editor, Left Business Observer
Liza Featherstone, journalist
Theodore Hamm, Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, MCNY
Stephen Duncombe, author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, NYU
Mark Winston Griffith, Exec. Dir.,Brooklyn Movement Center
Carolina Bank Munoz, Brooklyn College
Glenn Kissack, Hunter College High School, (ret.)
Michael Letwin, Former President, Assn. of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325; Co-Convener, New York City Labor Against the War
Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, Brooklyn College
Kitty Krupat, Murphy Institute for Labor Education
Marnie Brady, CUNY Graduate Center
Stephanie Luce, author of Fighting for a Living Wage, Murphy Institute for Labor Education
Eric Laursen, activist, author of The People’s Pension
Maida Rosenstein, President, Local 2110 UAW
Sean Jacobs, The New School
Jessica Blatt, Marymount Manhattan College
Michael O’Neil, Secretary of Green Party New York State and Secretary of the Green Party of Brooklyn
Mahayana Landowne, John Jay College
Andrew Hsiao, Senior Editor, Verso Books
Bill Freidheim, BMCC retired, Executive Council PSC-CUNY
Rev. Billy Talen
Christine Culpepper De Ruiz
Charles Post, BMCC-CUNY
Jennifer Loewenstein; University of Wisconsin-Madison
Tibby Brooks, 9/24 arrestee
Mark Brenner, Labor Notes
Jack Hammond, Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center
Fran Geteles, CIty College, retired
Stephen Leberstein, City College, retired
Renate Bridenthal, Brooklyn College, retired
Jonathan Buchsbaum, Queens College, PSC-CUNY Executive Council
Jim Perlstein, Co-chair Solidarity Committee PSC, Chair Retiree Chapter PSC
Barbara Winslow, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Bruno Gulli, author of Earthly Plenitudes, Long Island University (Brooklyn Campus) and Kingsborough Community College
Don Madison, MD (Retired Professor of Social Medicine and Health Policy, University of North Carolina
Karsten J. Struhl, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

The Gilad Atzmon controversy

Filed under: anti-Semitism,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

Gilad Atzmon

Gilad Atzmon is a jazz musician who has generated controversy over his articles on Zionism similar to those generated by Israel Shamir who I wrote about in July. While both men are of Jewish origin, they have been accused of anti-Semitism and holocaust denial. Many of the same charges have been made against Norman Finkelstein but in the case of Shamir and Atzmon there is much more substance.

Atzmon has prompted some heated reactions once again coinciding with the release of his new book “The Wandering Who?: A study of Jewish identity politics”, both in mainstream and radical circles.

I first got wind of the controversy from a blog post by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly titled “John Mearsheimer Endorses a Hitler Apologist and Holocaust Revisionist“. Along with Martin Peretz and Alan Dershowitz, Goldberg is one of America’s top apologists for the state of Israel. He was also a supporter of the war in Iraq, using his outpost at the New Yorker magazine to circulate pro-war propaganda very similar to Judith Miller’s. Goldberg writes:

Atzmon is quite obviously a twisted and toxic hater. His antisemitism is so blatant that activists of the so-called BDS movement (boycott, divestment and sanctions), which seeks the elimination of Israel, refuse to have anything to do with him. But Atzmon still has at least one friend among anti-Israel activists: The R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and co-author of “The Israel Lobby,” John J. Mearsheimer.

Mearsheimer had blurbed Atzmon’s book, much to Goldberg’s anger:

Gilad Atzmon has written a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world. He shows how assimilation and liberalism are making it incredibly difficult for Jews in the Diaspora to maintain a powerful sense of their ‘Jewishness.’ Panicked Jewish leaders, he argues, have turned to Zionism (blind loyalty to Israel) and scaremongering (the threat of another Holocaust) to keep the tribe united and distinct from the surrounding goyim. As Atzmon’s own case demonstrates, this strategy is not working and is causing many Jews great anguish. The Wandering Who? Should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike.’

Mearsheimer responded to Goldberg on Stephen Walt’s blog. As anybody who has been following the culture wars over the state of Israel will know, Mearsheimer and Walt, two highly accomplished academics, were accused of anti-Semitism for putting forward the proposition that there was an Israeli lobby and—what’s more—stating that it undermined American interests. Although I disagreed with their analysis, I did defend them against the anti-Semitism canard.  Mearsheimer wrote in self-defense against Goldberg, who has been hounding ever since the initial Mearsheimer-Walt salvo against Israel appeared:

The book, as my blurb makes clear, is an extended meditation on Jewish identity in the Diaspora and how it relates to the Holocaust, Israel, and Zionism. There is no question that the book is provocative, both in terms of its central argument and the overly hot language that Atzmon sometimes uses. But it is also filled with interesting insights that make the reader think long and hard about an important subject. Of course, I do not agree with everything that he says in the book — what blurber does? — but I found it thought provoking and likely to be of considerable interest to Jews and non-Jews, which is what I said in my brief comment.

Turning from the mainstream to the radical movement, an open letter appeared on Lenin’s Tomb from authors who had been published by Zero Books, the imprint associated with Atzmon’s new book. They complained:

Atzmon’s assertions are underpinned by a further claim, which is that antisemitism doesn’t exist, and hasn’t existed since 1948. There is only “political reaction” to “Jewish power”, sometimes legitimate, sometimes not. For example, the smashing up of Jewish graves may be “in no way legitimate”, but nor are they “’irrational’ hate crimes”. They are solely “political responses”.[5] Given this, it would be impossible for anything that Atzmon writes, or for anyone he associates with, to be anti-Semitic. This shows, not only in his writing, but in his political alliances. He sees nothing problematic, for example, in his championing of the white supremacist ‘Israel Shamir’ (“the sharpest critical voice of ‘Jewish power’ and Zionist ideology”[6]), whose writings reproduce the most vicious anti-Semitic myths including the ‘blood libel’, and for whom even the BNP are insufficiently racist.[7]

The thrust of Atzmon’s work is to normalise and legitimise anti-Semitism. We do not believe that Zero’s decision to publish this book is malicious. Atzmon’s ability to solicit endorsements from respectable figures such as Richard Falk and John Mearsheimer shows that he is adept at muddying the waters both on his own views and on the question of anti-Semitism. But at a time when dangerous forces are attempting to racialise political antagonisms, we think the decision is grossly mistaken. We call on Zero to distance itself from Atzmon’s views which, we know, are not representative of the publisher or its critical engagement with contemporary culture.

Along the same lines, Andy Newman, who runs the Socialist Unity blog used the Guardian’s Comments are Free to attack Atzmon:

Gilad Atzmon is a world renowned jazz musician, and a former soldier in the Israeli army, so his advocacy of the Palestinian cause is guaranteed to draw attention. Indeed, a small leftwing publisher, Zero Books, has commissioned Atzmon to write a book on the Jews as part of an otherwise entirely credible series by respected left figures such as Richard Seymour, Nina Power and Laurie Penny.

The trouble is that Atzmon has often argued that the Zionist oppression of the Palestinians is attributable not to the bellicose politics of the Israeli state, but to Jewish lobbies and Jewish power. Atzmon’s antisemitic writings include, for example, a 2009 article – Tribal Marxism for Dummies – in which he explains that while “Marxism is a universal paradigm, its Jewish version is very different. It is there to mould Marxist dialectic into a Jewish subservient precept”. Atzmon argues that it is merely a “Judeo-centric pseudo intellectual setting which aims at political power” and that “Jewish Marxism is there to … stop scrutiny of Jewish power and Jewish lobbying”.

Newman’s piece provoked a rebuttal from Jonathan Cook on Counterpunch titled “The Dangerous Cult of the Guardian”  that defended Atzmon as well as Edward Herman and David Peterson. Like Atzmon, these two have come under attack there as “holocaust deniers” on Bosnia and Rwanda from George Monbiot. Cook also took up David Leigh’s attack on Julian Assange, a recycling of the usual canards. Cook had this to say about Newman’s piece on Atzmon:

A typical example of the Guardian’s new strategy was on show this week in an article in the print edition’s comment pages – also available online and a far more prestigious platform than CiF – in which the paper commissioned a socialist writer, Andy Newman, to argue that the Israeli Jewish musician Gilad Atzmon was part of an anti-semitic trend discernible on the left.

Jonathan Freedland, the paper’s star columnist and resident obsessive on anti-semitism, tweeted to his followers that the article was “important” because it was “urging the left to confront antisemitism in its ranks”.

I have no idea whether Atzmon has expressed anti-semitic views – and I am none the wiser after reading Newman’s piece.

Cook says that he has no idea whether Atzmon has expressed anti-Semitic views. This might be a function of a failure to click the link in Newman’s article that would have brought him to the singularly stupid article titled “Tribal Marxism for Dummies. In it you can find howlingly uninformed opinions such as:

Jewish Marxism is very different from Marxism or socialism in general. While Marxism is a universal paradigm, its Jewish version is very different. It is there to mould Marxist dialectic into a Jewish subservient precept. Jewish Marxism is basically a crude utilisation of ‘Marxist-like’ terminology for the sole purpose of the Jewish tribal cause. It is a Judeo-centric pseudo intellectual setting which aims at political power.

Palestinian thinkers were probably the first to realise that the situation in Gaza, Nablus and the refugee camps had little in common with 19th century Europe. This was enough to defy Marxism as a sole analytical political tool. However, the Jewish Marxists had a far more adventurous plan for Palestinians, Arab people and the region in general. They wanted Arabs to become cosmopolitan atheists. They suggested that Arabs should drop ‘reactionary Islam’ and liberate themselves as ‘the Jews did’ a century ago.

When I read junk like this, I really have to wonder how Atzmon ever got an invitation to speak at an SWP conference in Britain. Fortunately the comrades figured out that they were dealing with a first-class imbecile. Apparently Counterpunch’s standards are a bit lower as they continue to publish both Shamir and Atzmon as the spirit moves them.

I would repeat what I wrote about Shamir last July since it is equally applicable to Atzmon. While I would not give him a platform in either print or electronic format, I don’t think he represents a looming danger for Jews. The only damage that his articles pose are to logic, good sense, and political clarity.

…let me differentiate myself a bit from Žižek on the question of “threats” to the Jews. While I agree that the Arabs are not the Nazis of today, I am less inclined than he is to fret about anti-Semitism as a serious looming “existential” menace to the Jews. Perhaps his lack of interest in social and economic history (i.e., historical materialism) explains his dwelling over “superstructure” but there is a world of difference between traditional anti-Semitism and the speech or writings of a Hamas leader or Ahmadinejad. The persecution of the Jews in Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany was intimately linked to the terminal decay of capitalism that could only resolved through war and the use of scapegoats.

We are decidedly moving into a deadly constellation of events that might precipitate new outbreaks of pogroms and even extermination but the targets will not be the Jews who are not easily identifiable through their isolation in ghettos or their economic role as pawnbrokers, shopkeepers, etc. Instead, it will be the Roma, the undocumented worker from Northern Africa, the Mexican, or the Arab.

The left has to be vigilant against any form of racialist stupidity, whether it comes from a disturbed individual lacking a social base like Israel Shamir or someone like Ahmadinejad who lacked the common sense to not invite David Duke to a symposium on the holocaust in Tehran. We do so primarily because their words weaken our movement by leaving it open to the charge of racism. This is especially a problem given the ability of the mass media to control the discourse and make the criminal into the victim and the victim into the criminal, as Malcolm X once put it.

I will conclude with one of a series of articles I wrote on the Goldhagen thesis  before I began blogging. It deals with real anti-Semitism as opposed to the knuckle-dragging stupidity of an Israel Shamir or a Gilad Atzmon that is a threat to nobody. It puts the persecution of the Jews into a historical context that is unfortunately lacking in the well-meaning and often very intelligent articles on Atzmon from his critics on the left.

Abram Leon wrote “The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation” in 1941 when he was all of 24 years old and at a time when his hands were filled leading the Belgian Trotskyist movement under conditions of fascist repression. Eventually, the Gestapo captured him and sent him to Auschwitz. He did not make it out alive.

Leon’s first involvement with radical politics was with the Hashomir Hatzoir, a Zionist-socialist youth group. He grew disenchanted with Zionism and became a Trotskyist at the time of the Moscow trials. This showed a certain independent streak since the Hashomir-ites were pro-Stalin, as well as being Zionist.

While Leon devoted himself to the Trotskyist movement from this point on, he never lost interest in the “Jewish Question.” He was anxious to answer the claims of the Zionists, as well as explain the virulent anti-Semitism that had swept Germany. What was the explanation for the failure of the Jews to assimilate? Why had this peculiar combination of race, nationality and religious denomination persisted through the ages? What was the nature of the hatred against the outsider Jew?

Leon took his cue from Karl Marx who wrote in ” On the Jewish Question”, “We will not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but we will look for the secret of the religion in the real Jew.” This led Leon to examine the socio-economic relations that might explain both the identity of the Jews and, by the same token, their persecution.

He believed that the key to understanding the Jewish question was their status as a “people-class.” The Jews, according to Leon, “constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely a people-class.” That economic function is tradesman. The Jew, from the days of the Babylonian exile, have functioned as tradesmen. Their location in the Mid-East facilitated commercial exchanges between Europe and Asia. As long as the Jew served in this economic capacity, the religious and national identity served to support his economic function.

Leon was strongly influenced in his views by Karl Kautsky, a leader of the Second International, who theorized the identity of a class with a people in pre-capitalist societies: “Different classes may assume the character of different races. On the other hand, the meeting of many races, each developing an occupation of its own, may lead to their taking up various callings or social positions within the same community: race becomes class.” The chief difference between Kautsky and Leon is that Leon made the equation between class and people specific. Where Kautsky saw tendencies, Leon saw a dialectical unity.

The period that lasted from classical antiquity to the Carolingian epoch was a time of prosperity and relative well-being for the Jews. In the Hellenistic era, Jews were part of the commercial elite in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch and Seleucia. The rise of the Roman Empire saw their continued success, as cities such as Alexandria continued to function as trading centers between the West and East. The role of Jews at Alexandria was so important that a Jew, Tiberius Julius Alexander, was appointed Roman governor of the city.

It is important to note that what united the Jews in this period was not wealth and power per se, but their economic role as tradesmen. Within the group were poorer peddlers and artisans. In the decline of the Roman Empire, many of these individuals were hardest hit. Their desperation, argues both Kautsky and Leon, explains the emergence of the Christianity cult which expressed class hatred of the rich in theological terms.

With the advent of the middle ages, the economic role of the Jew shifts somewhat. This is the period when the native merchant class begins to sell commodities produced in artisan workshops, the embryonic form of the factory. The trade that the Jew engaged in prior to this period was separate from production, but the Christian tradesman is part of the network of commodity exchange. Leon notes that “The evolution in exchange of medieval economy proved fatal to the position of the Jews in trade. The Jewish merchant importing spices into Europe and exporting slaves, is displaced by respectable Christian traders to whom urban industry supplies the principal products for their trading. This native commercial class collides violently with the Jews, occupants of an outmoded economic position, inherited from a previous period in historical evolution.”

These circumstances force the Jew to make his living as a usurer. He lends money to the feudal lords and the kings to finance their war expenditures and their luxuries. One of the main ways this is done is through “tax farming.” The King “farms out” the collection of tax revenues to a “Court Jew”, who gets a percentage of the take. My family name “Proyect” means the “counting house of a tax farmer.”

This primitive form of banking eventually clashes with banking based on the production of exchange values, which has been emerging during the same period as that of the artisan workshops and early factories. The usurer is hated not only by the lord to whom he charges high interest, but by the peasants who confront the Jew in his capacity as tax collector. The hatred builds to a fever pitch in places like London, Lincoln and Stafford, England in 1189 when massacres of Jews take place. Shakespeare’s “Shylock” reflects the lingering animosity toward the Jew long after these historical events took place and the Jew had been driven out of England. The most infamous campaign against the Jew took place in Spain during the Inquisition, when they were burned at the stake. The true motive was economic rivalry, according to Leon.

The Jews take flight to Eastern Europe and Poland in particular, where feudalism continues long after the emergence of capitalism in the West. An 1810 travel diary notes the following: “Poland should in all justice be called a Jewish kingdom… The cities and towns are primarily inhabited by them. Rarely will you find a village without Jews. Jewish taverns mark out all the main roads… Apart from some are manors which are administered by the lords themselves, all the others are farmed out or pledged to the Jews. They possess enormous capitals and no one can get along without their help. Only some very few very rich lords are not plunged up to their neck in debt with the Jews.”

In the late nineteenth century, capitalist property relations begin to develop in the Polish and Russian countryside. Lenin writes about this development in order to refute the Narodniks who held out the possibility of a village-based socialism. The transformation of Christian peasants into landless and debt-ridden laborers has dire consequences for the Jew who is not integrated into the new forms of capitalist property relations. They continue to act as intermediary between the peasant and plebeian masses in the countryside on one hand and the wastrel nobility in the big city on the other. As tensions arise, the first pogroms take place.

Also, at this time, the Jews begin to undergo class differentiation under the general impact of capitalism. A Jewish proletariat develops, which works in small artisan shops producing clothing and household utensils. This deeply oppressed social grouping is the target of pogroms, which indiscriminately attack rich and poor Jew alike. The deep insecurities of this period give rise to the Chassidic sects which function in much the same way that Christianity functions in the Roman Empire. It gives solace to a deeply insecure and economically miserable people.

Eventually the economic suffering takes its toll and mass migrations back to the West take place, both to Austria and Germany, and across the Atlantic to the United States. The ancestors of most Jews living in the United States arrived in this period.

Nobody could have predicted at the turn of the century the awful consequences of the exodus into Germany. Notwithstanding the vile utterances of Richard Wagner, Germany had a well-deserved reputation for tolerance. The German Jews, as opposed to their recently arrived Yiddish speaking brethren from the East, spoke German and were assimilationist to the core. Some of the Jewish elites tended to argue for acceptance of the new Hitlerite regime on its own terms, which they viewed as simply another species of ultra-nationalism.

For Leon, the rabid anti-Semitism of the post-WWI period fell into the same category as the age-old forms. It was virulent economic rivalry that grew out of the collapse of the German economy:

“The economic catastrophe of 1929 threw the petty-bourgeois masses into a hopeless situation. The overcrowding in small business, artisanry and the intellectual professions took on unheard of proportions. The petty-bourgeois regard his Jewish competitor with growing hostility, for the latter’s professional cleverness, the results of centuries of practice, often enabled him to survive ‘hard times’ more easily. Anti-Semitism even gained the ear of wide layers of worker-artisans, who traditionally had been under petty-bourgeois influences.”

When a Trotskyist veteran first presented this theory to me in 1967, it had powerful explanatory aspects. The true cause of anti-Semitism was the capitalist system, not some latent and free-floating animus toward the Jew. The key to the survival of the Jewish people was not the Zionist state of Israel, but the abolition of the capitalist system.

Recent controversy over the Goldhagen thesis, which tries to explain anti-Semitism in metaphysical terms, has forced me to rethink Leon’s nominally Marxist interpretation. We must revisit the question of the explanatory power of Leon’s thesis in light of the exterminationist policy of the Hitler regime. It is very likely that Leon himself had not been aware of the pending genocide, which did not take shape until 1943 at the Wansee Conference. Leon was trying to explain an anti-Semitism that was in many ways no more vicious than the anti-Black racism of the American south. The Nuremburg racial laws of 1935 stripped Jews of their German citizenry and made intermarriage illegal. This was deplorable, but after all Blacks could not vote or marry whites in the Deep South in 1935 either.

Another weakness of Leon’s work is that he de-emphasizes the people side of the people-class equation. Most of his work is devoted to an examination of the Jew’s relationship to the means of production, but very little to their religion, language, culture and values. This is one of the criticisms found in the chapter on Leon in Enzo Traverso’s “The Marxists and the Jewish Question: The History of a Debate 1843-1943”. The importance of this was driven home to me last night while I watched a 90 minute documentary on Jewish liturgical music on PBS. There is an immense variety of influences on Cantorial chanting. The Falashas of Ethiopia echo African harmonies, while the Turkish Jews employ the oud and tamboura, typical instruments of the region. In all cases, the prayers are nearly identical. The narrator of the documentary asks one Cantor for his explanation of the unity of the Jews over a 3500 year period, when other nationalities have disappeared from the face of the earth. His answer: the geographical dispersion of the Jews is the answer. If the Jews had remained tied to the same territory, they would have gone the way of the Babylonians, Romans, Greeks, etc. This certainly makes wonder if an ironic twist lies in store for the state of Israel.

It could be argued that this deficiency in Leon has a lot to do with the exigencies of trying to write about the social and economic factors when so many others had covered the cultural aspects. It is more likely, as Traverso points out most tellingly, that the reason for this lack has to do with Leon’s intellectual dependence on Kautsky.

Kautsky’s Marxism was deeply problematic. It comes close to economic determinism. The Second International tended to follow a simplistic base-superstructure model of Marxism. At its worst, it allowed social democrats to side with the bourgeoisie against the Russian Revolution. Since the base of the Russian economy was not fully mature in a capitalist sense, the Bolshevik seizure of power was premature, adventuristic and would lead to dictatorship.

The same methodological error appears in Leon. He tries to explain German anti-Semitism almost exclusively in economic terms. The problem, however, is that this explanation tends to break down when the Nazi regime institutes the death camps. After all, there is no plausible economic explanation for such behavior. It can only be called madness.

In 1933, ten years before the death camps, Leon Trotsky wrote “What is National Socialism.” This article does an excellent job of diagnosing the madness of the Nazi movement which had just taken power:

“Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth of the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism.”

Nazism as undigested barbarism seems much closer to the mark than the base-superstructure model. Trotsky goes even further than this. In 1938, a midway point between date of the preceding article, and the death camps, Trotsky predicts the impending genocide. In December of that year, in an appeal to American Jews, he writes: “It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.”

These remarks are cited in the first paragraph of Norman Geras’s “Marxists before the Holocaust”, an article which appears in the special July/August 1997 issue of New Left Review on the holocaust. This issue features a lengthy critique by Norman Finkelstein on Goldhagen. While Finkelstein’s rather devastating attack on the scholarship and implicitly pro-Zionist ideas of Goldhagen have achieved a high profile, Geras’s article is worthy of discussion as well, since it occupies a space much closer to Goldhagen’s than to Marxism.

Geras argues that Marxism can not explain the holocaust. His attack is not directed at Leon’s economic determinism. Rather it is directed at Trotsky and Ernest Mandel who try to explain the holocaust as an expression of capitalism in its most degenerate and irrational phase. Geras says that the murder of the Jews is radically different than the bombing of Hiroshima, the war in Indochina and other acts of imperialist barbarism cited by Mandel in an effort to put the genocide in some kind of context. The difference between the death camps and the slaughter of the Vietnamese people is one of quantity, not quality. This outrages Geras, who says that Mandel and the German “revisionist” historian Ernst Nolte should be paired.

“What follows should only be said bluntly. Within this apologia there is a standpoint bearing a formal resemblance to something I have criticized in Mandel. I mean the energetic contextualization of Nazi crimes by Nolte, even while briefly conceding their singular and unprecedented character: his insistence that they belong to the same history of modern times as the American war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the exodus from Vietnam of the boat people–a ‘holocaust on the water’–the Cambodian genocide, the repression following on the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and, above all, the liquidation of the kulaks, and the Gulag. Against that backdrop, Nolte urged that the Third Reich ‘should be removed from the isolation in which it still finds itself.’ This is what came, in the debate in question, to be called ‘relativization’ of the Holocaust; and it is what Mandel himself calls it in taking issue with Nolte’s views. Mandel continues even now to assert that the Holocaust was an extreme product of tendencies which are historically more general. But he perceives a need, evidently, to balance the assertion with a greater emphasis on the singularity of the Jews.”

Geras says that he will try at some point to offer his own analysis of why the Jews were exterminated. Since I am not familiar with his work, I hesitate to predict what shape it will take. I suspect that there will be liberal appropriation of the type of idealist obfuscation contained in Goldhagen. That would be unfortunate. What is needed to understand Nazism is not essentialist readings of German history, but a more acute historical materialist understanding of these tragic events.

When I was in grade school in the 1950s in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, there were large numbers of Jews who spent their summers there and shopped in my father’s fruit store. I remember seeing the tattoos of numbers on many of their forearms and asked my father what they represented. It was very unusual for a Jew to be tattooed because orthodox rituals stipulated that you must be buried with the same outward appearance you were born with. He explained to me that these Jews had been in concentration camps and murdered by the millions. The shoppers with tattoos were “survivors.” I did not understand this. What was their crime to be punished so?

In the 1950s, a time of deep material abundance and spiritual poverty, there was something else that I could not understand. We had to practice nuclear air-raid drills in our school. We had to “duck and cover” in the basement of the building. This would protect us from a H-bomb. This seemed crazy to me. If the United States and the USSR had an all-out nuclear war, wouldn’t everybody die? A blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter wrote “The Boy With Green Hair” in these years to dramatize what I and every other 7 year old was thinking.

Why would anybody consider the possibility and prepare for nuclear war, which would be a new Holocaust of even greater dimensions than the Nazi murder of the Jews. This Holocaust would kill everybody on the planet and all living things. Measured by the ordinary laws and values of capitalist society, this made no sense at all.

No, it did not make any sense whatsoever, but the Pentagon was planning on just such scenarios. Not only was it escalating the arms race, it engaged in nuclear brinksmanship over and over again. Nixon argued for an A-bomb attack on the Viet Mihn forces at Dien Bhien-Phu in 1954. Kennedy brought the world to the brink of war in his confrontation over Cuban missiles. While nuclear war did not occur, the chances were not so remote as to be beyond comprehension.

The American government was not run by madmen, who were representative of “undigested barbarism.” Oliver Stone, the film-maker who is supposedly highly sensitive to madmen, has made films which attempt to burnish the reputation of Nixon and JFK alike. “Our” capitalist politicians would never blow up the world, would they? Well, yes they probably wouldn’t.

But try to imagine a United States in steep economic decline, mired in imperialist war on three continents. Instead of Bill Clinton in the White House, imagine Pat Buchanan or David Duke instead. He is advised by Christian fundamentalists in the Cabinet who believe that we are in the “final days” before Armageddon. If the reward of Christian soldiers is life eternal at the right hand of Jesus Christ, perhaps all-out nuclear war against Communist or Muslim infidels “makes sense.”

The point is that capitalism has a deeply irrational streak. The system is prone to wars and economic crisis. It should have been abolished immediately after World War One. The only reason that is wasn’t is that the revolutionary movement came under the control of Stalin, who time and time again showed that he did not understand how to defeat capitalist reaction. The success of Hitler is directly attributable to the failure of the German Communist Party to fight him effectively.

Unless the socialist movement finds a way to put an end to capitalism and disarm the war-makers, the survival of the planet remains in question. While we can not “explain” the genocide adequately no matter how sharp our theoretical weapons, one thing is for sure. We have a sufficient explanation for the need to abolish capitalism: it is an inherently irrational system which threatens the human race.

Tom Morello on Bill Maher show

Filed under: financial crisis — louisproyect @ 12:16 am




September 27, 2011

Good coverage of police riot

Filed under: repression — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

September 26, 2011

Goldman Sachs rules the world

Filed under: capitalist pig,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 11:20 pm

The Yes Men deny any involvement:

Rastani is not in Liberty Plaza (#occupywallstreet)

By Andy Bichlbaum on Sep 27 2011 – 9:56am Tagged:

The Yes Men wish to commend Mr. “Alessio Rastani” for his masterful performance as “trader” on BBC World yesterday. Mr. Rastani’s real name is Granwyth Hulatberi; he once appeared on CNBC MarketWrap as a “representative” of the WTO. Well done, Granwyth! You’re getting better and better.

Just kidding. We’ve never heard of Rastani. Despite widespread speculation, he isn’t a Yes Man. He’s a real trader who is, for one reason or another, being more honest than usual. Who in big banking doesn’t bet against the interests of the poor and find themselves massively recompensed—if not by the market, then by humongous taxpayer bailouts? Rastani’s approach has been completely mainstream for several years now; we must thank him for putting a human face on it yesterday.

If you’d like to see the human face of the human perspective—the perspective of the 99% victimized by our demented and out-of-control financial system—come join the occupation of Wall Street. Michael Moore did so  last night, and pointed out that in America, it’s just 400 people who own as much as most of the rest of us put together—and that when we decide we really want to change the rules of the game, those 400 people won’t be able to do squat about it.

* * * *

It looks like the Yes Men pranked  BBC once again!

* * * *

Trader Or Prankster? We Called Alessio Rastani And Asked

Yesterday a purported independent trader going by the name Alessio Rastani appeared on BBC and said some delicious things, namely that he’s been dreaming about a recession and that Goldman Sachs rules the world.

Gawker promptly called him a “sociopath.” My colleague at Forbes said he might be a psychopath.  Some people commenting on his Facebook page called him a “muppet,” a “nasty little self-publicist” and a “totally honest bastard who wants to rise to the top of [on] the rest of the world’s misery.” Another suggested that he die.

But then talk circulated that Rastani might be a member of Yes Men, a collective of impersonators. Was his little talk a hoax? When I reached Rastani in London to ask, he spouted some vague wisdom, mentioned his “trader friends,” and insisted that trading is his obsession. He started off the conversation:

AR: I had something to tell you guys. The guy who wrote [on Forbes] mistakenly wrote that I’m a Wall Street trader. I’m not an institutional trader. I wouldn’t dream of ever doing that. I trade my own money, my own account. That’s what I always wanted to do. I like the idea of not having a boss. I did work for one institution, but I realized I want to do it for myself. I just started, and I worked with some of the best traders in the world. I saw how they were doing things. Eventually I developed my own style.


What ever happened to the American left? A reply to Michael Kazin

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 6:43 pm

Michael Kazin

Over the past two Sundays Dissent Magazine’s co-editor Michael Kazin—a 63 year old Georgetown University historian and son of “New York intellectual” literary critic Alfred Kazin—has been brought to the attention of New York Times readers as a leftist spokesman. On September 18, his “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation” was reviewed by Yale professor Beverly Gage who offered a mixed verdict. She found Kazin “an eloquent spokesman” for a left that she described as “dead” largely because socialism “has all but collapsed”.

Yesterday, Kazin made an appearance in the Opinion section of the Times with an article titled “Whatever Happened to the American Left”  that was obviously drawn from the ideas in his new book. Like a scene from one of those movies based on H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine”, Kazin hurdles forward at a breakneck pace as the calendar pages—1890, 1930, 1970—fly by.

Although I don’t find Kazin nearly as odious as his co-editor, the unctuous laptop bombardier Michael Walzer, I did find his nasty swipe at Howard Zinn  aggravating. As for Dissent Magazine, there usually is an article or two worth reading even though the editorial slant is tepidly social democratic. It was founded in 1954 by a group of New York Intellectuals that included ex-Trotskyist Irving Howe. Setting a pattern for people like Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin years later, Howe staked out an anti-antiwar position during the Vietnam war. You can find an excellent write-up on all this by Doug Henwood titled “Dissent Goes to War”.

The basic flaw in Kazin’s reasoning is encapsulated in these two paragraphs:

After years of preparation, welfare-state liberalism had finally become a mainstream faith. In 1939, John L. Lewis, the pugnacious labor leader, declared, “The millions of organized workers banded together in the C.I.O. are the main driving force of the progressive movement of workers, farmers, professional and small business people and of all other liberal elements in the community.” With such forces on his side, the politically adept F.D.R. became a great president.

But the meaning of liberalism gradually changed. The quarter century of growth and low unemployment that followed World War II understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth. Meanwhile, conservatives began to build their own movement based on a loathing of “creeping socialism” and a growing perception that the federal government was oblivious or hostile to the interests and values of middle-class whites.

In the first paragraph, you find the typical misty-eyed version of the New Deal that fails to account for Roosevelt’s real agenda, which was to lay the groundwork for the destruction of the left—ironically supported by the Communist Party. In 1941 the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party were indicted under the Smith Act, thought control legislation that would become a centerpiece of the Cold War witch-hunt. FDR saw eye-to-eye with Teamsters president Dan Tobin who wanted to root the Trotskyist radicals out of local 544 based in the Twin Cities. The CP cheered Roosevelt on.

The New Deal strategy was to work closely with CIO “progressives” in drawing the unions closer to the national security state. With the CP in the driver’s seat, the big CIO unions agreed to a wage freeze during WWII. The UAW’s Walter Reuther, who Kazin likened to Eugene V. Debs in March 2011, was the first CIO chief to open up a witch-hunt in his own union not long after WWII had ended. Basically, the same circle-the-wagons hysteria that had been directed against Germany and Japan was now to be used against the CP. When the CP was purged from the unions, the left was robbed of one of its most effective voices even as it was wrong much of the time. This anti-communist crusade that was born when Roosevelt was president and that matured under Harry Truman, the author of the first loyalty clause, predated McCarthyism and had as much to do with the left’s demise as the “quarter century of growth and low unemployment” that Kazin refers to in the second paragraph.

His charge that “Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth” is one that has been frequently heard from social democrats. Todd Gitlin, a member of Dissent’s editorial board, wrote a book in 1995 titled “The Twilight of Common Dreams” that was basically a 294 page elaboration of that single sentence. The latest version, of course, can be found in Walter Benn Michaels’s various articles that views university-based “diversity” programs as some kind of plot to keep workers in chains.

In explaining the growth of the right, Kazin has a most novel take on things:

One reason for the growth of the right was that most of those in charge of the government from the mid-1960s through the 2000s — whether Democrats or Republicans — failed to carry out their biggest promises. Lyndon Johnson failed to defeat the Viet Cong or abolish poverty; Jimmy Carter was unable to tame inflation or free the hostages in Iran; George W. Bush neither accomplished his mission in Iraq nor controlled the deficit.

I am at a loss to understand the point being made here. If Johnson had defeated the Viet Cong (a term, btw, only used by their enemies) and Bush had accomplished his mission, the likely outcome would have been an even deeper rightwing mood based on triumphalism. Since I am not very good at deciphering the muddled thinking of tenured liberals, I will leave it at that.

The conclusion to Michael Kazin’s article is rather good:

If activists on the left want to alter this reality, they will have to figure out how to redefine the old ideal of economic justice for the age of the Internet and relentless geographic mobility. During the last election, many hoped that the organizing around Barack Obama’s presidential campaign would do just that. Yet, since taking office, Mr. Obama has only rarely made an effort to move the public conversation in that direction.

Instead, the left must realize that when progressives achieved success in the past, whether at organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians. They fashioned their own institutions — unions, women’s groups, community and immigrant centers and a witty, anti-authoritarian press — in which they spoke up for themselves and for the interests of wage-earning Americans.

Today, such institutions are either absent or reeling. With unions embattled and on the decline, working people of all races lack a sturdy vehicle to articulate and fight for the vision of a more egalitarian society. Liberal universities, Web sites and non-governmental organizations cater mostly to a professional middle class and are more skillful at promoting social causes like legalizing same-sex marriage and protecting the environment than demanding millions of new jobs that pay a living wage.

A reconnection with ordinary Americans is vital not just to defeating conservatives in 2012 and in elections to come. Without it, the left will remain unable to state clearly and passionately what a better country would look like and what it will take to get there. To paraphrase the labor martyr Joe Hill, the left should stop mourning its recent past and start organizing to change the future.

To return to Beverly Gage’s rather dismissive attitude toward the left, there is another dimension to the failure of the socialist “experiment” that she missed. The USSR and its allied “socialist” states were both an inspiration to young radicals as well as a brake on the mass movement against capitalism. While a massive CP-led French trade union was powerful enough to protect the social gains that a magazine like Dissent celebrated, that very power enabled it to essentially sabotage the revolutionary movement against Gaullist rule.

Those days are gone forever. With the exception of Cuba and North Korea, there are no socialist states nor is there a powerful Communist Party that can act as the agent of corporate influence within the workers movement. On one hand, we are weaker since that movement no longer has the muscle to stop reactionary attacks on our standard of living. On the other, it removes an obstacle to revolution that has existed since the 1920s.

Additionally, social democracy—in essence no different from Stalinism except on the “Russian question”—is also a thing of the past. No matter how many times the New Deal is invoked (with Chris Matthews calling nightly for a new WPA on MSNBC), none is in the offing. The kind of liberalism that was associated with FDR’s three terms cannot be detached from its economic foundations. In the 1930s and 40s, the U.S. was a smokestack dominated economy that needed blue collar workers by the millions. Today, manufacturing is rapidly disappearing. To conceptualize what class forces and what strategy is required to defeat capitalist rule in such drastically transformed conditions requires a firm grasp of Marxism and a willingness to see things through to their conclusion. This means studying Lenin and other Marxists who were able to penetrate to the bottom of class relations in the societies that they were seeking to transform. Given our challenge against the most powerful and most deadly ruling class in history, this is the example we should aspire to.

September 25, 2011

John Halle covers the Wall Street protests

Filed under: anti-capitalism,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

(John was an elected Green Party alderman in New Haven when he was at Yale. He now teaches music composition at Bard College.)

Hi Everyone,

The following is a report from the Wall Street Occupation protest march which I am now on the train returning home from.

When I arrived at Zuccotti Park at approximately 12:15,  the march which was just getting under way initially appeared to be small, marginal and unimportant.  By describing it in this way, I do not mean to denigrate it. After all, I have spent a good part of my life attending small, marginal, and almost certainly unimportant events-namely concerts by obscure ensembles performing obscure “new” music, whatever that means these days.  Of course, in these days of internet connectedness, events which attract only a few local participants can attract a national, or even world-wide audience of thousands.  A concert in New York of the music of Lamonte Young or Milton Babbitt will almost certainly seem, and almost certainly is marginal, by any reasonable definition of the term.  But invariably, scattered around the world there are a few pockets of admirers who will amplify the event into something which is, at least, in their minds of great importance.  The same goes with #occupywallstreet.  Numerous “tweets”, blog postings, comments to blogs, reports of solidarity marches, busses arriving from Madison, St. Louis, etc. gave the impression that this event had the potential to attract large or at least respectable numbers.

The fact is that it did not.   The original group, and I made several efforts to check this, was almost certainly less than 1000, which is to say that it filled about a half the length of a New York  city block.  Those who were at the Feb 15, 2003 demonstration will remember that the throng extended the entire length of 5th Avenue from 42 St. to 96th, across to and back down again on Second across to the United Nations and then back up again to 96th.  That makes for something like 120 blocks or more crammed full with people-a crowd estimated at a million. This was almost certainly a factor of 500 smaller-an indication of where this movement needs to go to get the attention of Lloyd Blankfein, Jamie Dimon, and the other felons who are now our de facto rulers. More on that later.

When I describe the march as marginal, those familiar with protests of this general sort will know what I mean.  Doug Henwood’s report (http://lbo-news.com/2011/09/23/visiting-the-occupiers-of-wall-street/) of his visit to Zuccatti Park (a.k.a. Liberty Plaza) nicely captured a static version of the basic outlines of the scene pretty well: a throng of college or post college radicals, whatever that means these days (not much, in my experience), with a few moth eaten contingents from the various Marxist sects still carrying the flag based on some more or less idiosyncratic passage in the Grundrisse, a few obvious psychotics best avoided, a few artsy lower east side types, though by now surely displaced to the outer boroughs. Of course, there were lots more: a few vaguely neurotic looking, aging academics like myself, a disarmingly pretty Asian girl with purple hair and her boyfriend, a few hip-hop enthuiasts, likely attracted by rapper Lupe Fiasco who had endorsed the march.  In any case, this is what we had to work with.  And as Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked, you protest with the marchers you have, not those you wish you had.  And so I joined in somewhat skeptically though I was to become less so for several reasons which I’ll describe in the following, along with some interspersed commentary and reflections.

First, as the march got close to its ultimate destination of Union Square, it seemed to pick up steam, its numbers increasing, the chants, while still mostly pedestrian, becoming more coherent and less obvious recyclings of decades old slogans which have become by now almost irrelevant.  Most significantly, as the march progressed it would be infused with a lot more passion and legitimate anger.  On this latter point, it needs to be observed that a double digit unemployment rate means that being college student or a recent grad is likely to be suffused with something in between misery, dread and stark terror of the future which likely awaits. And while this has becoming increasingly apparent to me among the students I teach, it was still more visible in the faces of more than a few of the protestors.  This is not just the long term future of carbon induced planetary apocalypse which they will live to see-and which I, thankfully, will not.  It is the immediate and midterm future of  un- or at best underemployment at wages and working conditions reflecting the tight, employer-centric labor market.  That means eking out an living through dead end internships, temporary office work will become the norm for all but a few of the chosen (read Ivy League) grads in the appropriate majors having the right connections. And while for a long time the Nietzschean devil-take-the-hindmost ethos of college students was unforgiving, viewing those unable to compete in the new economy as having only themselves to blame, it is now becoming apparent that the game is being played with a stacked deck.  And so for the first time in a long time those in their teens and twenties have an immediate personal stake in that which they are protesting, and while the still dreadful legacy of sociology departments, “non hierarchical” discourse, diversity training and “anti-racism” remains evident in the rhetoric, slowly the smothering layer of academic abstraction and language games seems to be lifting from protest culture and what is revealed is a deep, festering and altogether righteous anger-what the Arabic speakers refer to by the word “hamas.”

Secondly, it became increasingly clear that more that a few of the participants were willing to push the envelope of the protest in the direction of outright confrontation, and, more importantly, this seemed both justifiable and appropriate under the circumstances. I use these words advisedly,  doing so based on the recognition that demonstrations have become choreographed rituals which have long since lost the capacity to demonstrate anything meaningful.  And when I say choreographed it needs to be understood that those doing the choreographing are the police, under orders from higher ups who are well schooled in crowd management techniques designed to marginalize and blunt the effectiveness of protest.

Under the Giuliani and Bloomberg regimes the cold precision of the choreography imposed by the NYPD on protests rivals that of the Ballet Russe under Balanchine: since the Feb 15th, 2003 and Republican National Convention protest, the authorities have made use of a highly effective combination of carrots and sticks. Quiet and non-violent-by which is meant non-disruptive protests under the terms set by the authorities are tolerated.  However, those stepping out of line, those who insist that protests do what they are supposed to do, i.e. disrupt business as usual and impose a cost on those primarily benefitting from its operation, are dealt with considerable harshness.

The response of demonstrators over the past few years has been to capitulate to these imposed conditions and thereby, often under the rubric of “non-violence”, allowing protest to become empty rituals.   What is necessary now is that demonstrations reclaim their roots as a demonstrations of power, specifically, their ability to disrupt.  And while the disruptions effected today, in the larger scheme of things were quite minimal, what a critical mass of the participants seem to implicitly understand is that disruption-the ability to inflict real costs on entrenched capital through unpredictable and spontaneous (i.e unchoreographed) direct action is a necessary condition for the success of any protest.  If these protests succeed in growing with this assumption at their core, they have real potential to become truly meaningful.  It remains to be seen whether they will do so.

A couple of examples will give some idea of the potential I’m referring to, one of these extraordinary: after the march reached its eventual destination at Union Square Park, most seemed to expect that we would return more or less the way we came back to Zuccotti Park.  While we were there, it became clear that the police had received orders to disperse the group.  Their initial attempt to do so was when we were still in the park, and was effected by vinyl mesh barriers which prevented the crowd from returning south back to its original destination in Wall Street. To do this required erecting these barriers at edge of the group, turning back those who had just started on its way south.  Among these was a man maybe slightly younger than myself-though not much-who simply demanded to go where he to, and he would be damned if he would let the cops get in his way. And so he stepped in front of the cops who were trying to hem us in, inviting a violent confrontation and likely arrest. But that’s not extraordinary, as this was to be duplicated with greater or lesser degrees of violence at least forty times over the next hour.  What was extraordinary was how the man impeded the cop: he did so by pushing a stroller which enclosed the man’s three or four year old child in the cops way.  The cop pushed the stroller aside and attacked the man with real viciousness, in full view of the child.  I didn’t see what would later materialize-how or whether the man would be arrested.  I did, however, see another small child in the park who was a spectator to the event breaking down in tears, as his father, a dreadlocked man tried to console him.

As a parent of a small child who I was considering bringing along to this, but thankfully did not,  I wasn’t sure how to respond to what seemed to be an act of almost insane recklessness.  Initially, I was was appalled, but in retrospect, in revisiting the mental image, I couldn’t help but be moved by the commitment and courage displayed, and by the recognition that finally the stakes of our confrontation are becoming clear. As Marx said “we are now required to compelled to face with sober senses, (our) real conditions of life, and (our) relations with (our) kind.” While few of us will find ourselves capable of this man’s courage, this is the kind of reaction which will be required of us when we face up to the realities we are encountering with sober senses.

A description of the remainder of the march requires the trite but, in this context, altogether accurate phrase, “violently dispersed by the police”, though this is, of course, usually applied to various third world dictatorships.   One block south the police began to erect a second set of barriers with the purpose of dividing the march into smaller groups, separated by a block or so, arresting those who refused to get out of the street, and who resisted.   The arrests were undertaken with considerable brutality which I was a direct witness to, and almost a victim of.  The worst which happened to me was to have receive the full brunt of a body which had been slammed with remarkable force by a particularly violent and thuggish cop.  Another encounter which I witnessed was worse and somewhat disturbing.  A protester who had, I would imagine, prevented the erection of the crowd control barrier, was tackled and set upon by at least seven or eight cops administering a series of blows to all parts of the man’s head and abdomen.  I had never seen a display of violence of such intensity and it was quite unnerving. The fact that the target of this display of brutality was black will probably not come as a surprise.

These are some of the events which seem worth reporting here.  There were others which a more journalistically inclined (and trained) observer would no doubt relate.   Rather than itemizing these I’ll close by mentioning a third reason for why I am somewhat optimistic.  This is personal and even a bit sentimental so those who don’t know me might do well to skip the remainder of this paragraph.  At the intersection of West 4th my friend Judd Greenstein who I had called earlier darted in the the crowd next to me. Judd, in addition to being probably the most gifted, passionate and communicative of the younger composers I know, is also one of the finest people-in the most simple and meaningful sense of the term.  Pretty much unique in my circle of acquaintances, he is a reliable presence at these sorts of protests, having met up with me a year ago or so at a Wall Street protest following the bank bail outs.  More significantly for me,  this seemingly random encounter brought back for me one of my most treasured memories.  At the Iraq war protest in Feb 2003, I was within a sea of bodies walking southward on the corner of 79th and Amsterdam,  when I spotted within the crowd heading west my father Morris who was then eighty and my mother Rosamond who was now walking slowly having begun to be affected by the Parkinsons disease which would take her life this year.  I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.  While they are not political activists (certainly less so than my father’s long time friend and colleague Chomsky) their investment in politics is real, though almost exclusively moral-dictated by a simple code which required them to actively protest when their government is enacting atrocities in their name, as it did in Vietnam during my childhood, and as it was about to do in Iraq.  Protest is what every decent person did back then-it was not limited to an activist clique.  There were lots like my parents back then.

Judd attended this demonstration for exactly the same reasons which my parents did nearly half a century ago, and which were defining events of my childhood.  Protest is what decent people do when they are confronted with evil.  Having both witnessed the thuggish crackdown south of Union Square, I was grateful to be able to be able take stock of the situation with him. His presence today was for me a validation of the possibility that there maybe some ultimate hope to be squeezed out of what now appears to be a fairly desperate trajectory into something approximating a police state-at least for those who do what is necessary to make protest meaningful.

Finally, a post-script: I’m writing this as the police prepare for what may be a final-and likely, if today’s events were any guide, intensely brutal assault on the encampment in Zuccati Park.  As I have been posting on Facebook, this appears to me to be a Martin Niemoller moment for us-one where they are coming for a marginal clique, one which is the butt of jokes (including my own above) and regarded as absurd and insignificant by all but a few.  Today’s NYT’s coverage of the protestors, predictably contemptuous and dismissive, sets the stage perfectly for this crackdown-and provides grounds for all the right thinking people who are the Times’ primary demographic to avert their eyes.  The few decent people who find out about this may get on the subway and head to Wall Street to bear witness, and maybe even act.  But I can’t say I’m in the least optimistic that anything like this is in the cards-certainly nothing approximating the display of force which we must martial to make a difference.  All this is only further confirmation of Niemoller’s dictum: when they come for us there may very well be very few left to speak up.

Doug Henwood covers the Wall Street Protests

Filed under: anti-capitalism,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 1:18 am


September 24, 2011

Did World War Two end the Great Depression?

Filed under: economics,financial crisis,war — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

When commentators continue to refer the most recent financial crisis as “the Great Recession”, they are obviously invoking the other crisis qualified by the adjective “great”, namely the one that began after the stock market crash of 1929. The intractable nature of the current slump has many economists invoking FDR’s New Deal even as the reality sank in long ago that Obama was much more like Herbert Hoover than FDR.

Now some economists—either professional or amateur like me—question whether the accouterments of the New Deal would have had any real impact at all. And one of them has dared to suggest how the Great Depression ended in terms conveyed to me as a new recruit to the Trotskyist movement in 1967, namely that it was WWII rather than the CCC, etc. that was responsible for the recovery. In a November 10, 2008 op-ed column titled “Franklin Delano Obama?”, Paul Krugman wrote:

What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.

Harry Magdoff made the same argument in an open letter to an economist whose article included a sentence that troubled him: “Today’s neo-liberal state is a different kind of capitalist class than the social-democratic, Keynesian interventionist state of the previous period.” In questioning the value of Keynesian interventions of the sort that are found on a daily basis in places like the Nation Magazine, Harry concurred with Krugman:

The onset of a marked recession [in 1937-38] after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the “Keynesian Welfare State” has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war. In that sense, the whole concept of Keynesianism can be mystification.

Of course, America’s recovery after the start of WWII was in itself a perverse confirmation of the need to adopt Keynesian stimuli, which was the point of Krugman’s column. Liberal economists advocate deficit spending to stimulate the economy but prefer that it be used to build bridges rather than bomb them.

As Randolph Bourne put it during WWI, “war is the health of the state”. While he was writing about the ideological conformity that takes place during war, you might as well extend that to the health of the economy as well. For the entire 20th century and continuing into the 21st, military spending has served in a bastardized Keynesian fashion to keep the system afloat.

Indeed, the late Lynn Turgeon—a long-time subscriber to Michael Perelman’s PEN-L mailing list—wrote a book titled “Bastard Keynesianism: The Evolution of Economic Thinking and Policy-Making” in 1996 that had an introduction with the lead sentence: “The economics of World War II represented a thundering validation of Keynesian economics, as expounded in Keynes’s General Theory”. Indeed, it didn’t really matter which economist a war economy named as its chief guru, as long as it put into practice the kind of massive state spending that was synonymous with Keynes. As Michael Perelman once put it in a message to the post-Keynesian Economics mailing list (now defunct), “Like Lynn Turgeon, I was impressed with Silverman, Dan P. 1997. Hitler’s Economy: Nazi Work Creation Programs, 1933-1936 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). The book suggests that, if you filter out the racist elements, Hitler’s economic policy were, in effect, a clearer version of the New Deal.”

Apologists for the capitalist system would obviously be troubled by any attempts to connect WWII with the end of the Great Depression since it leads to a political conclusion that condemns the very system they believe in. If it takes millions of dead soldiers and civilians to produce a recovery, isn’t that in and of itself an imperative to overthrow that system?

One strategy is to debunk the notion that the war did lead to a recovery. Two pillars of the establishment—Brad DeLong and Lawrence Summers—have made such an attempt in a 1988 Brookings Institution paper titled “How Does Macroeconomic Policy Affect Output?” They write:

By the time World War II began and the government began to exert command over the economy, more than five-sixths of the Depression decline in output relative to the trend had been made up. It is hard to attribute any of the pre-1942 catchup of the economy to the war. Neither the federal government’s fiscal deficit nor the surplus on trade account became an appreciable share of national product before Pearl Harbor.

Christine Romer, who was quoted in a new book to the effect that the Obama White house was a male chauvinist pig sty dominated by men like Lawrence Summers, agreed with DeLong and Summers in a 1991 paper titled “What Ended the Great Depression” that begins:

Between 1933 and 1937 real GNP in the United States grew at an average rate of over 8 percent per year; between 1938 and 1941 it grew at an average rate of over 10 percent per year. By any prewar or postwar metric these rates of growth are spectacular, even for an economy pulling out of a severe depression.

In the December 1994 Journal of Economic History, J.R. Vernon answers the claims of Summers, DeLong and Romer in a paper titled “World War II Fiscal Policies and the End of the Great Depression”. While no Marxist (and not even a radical by any appearances), Vernon makes some essential points. To start with, he stresses that more than half of the recovery took place between 1941 and 1942—in other words when war spending had geared up. Government purchase of goods and services ticked up by 54.7 percent in this one-year period and continued to increase as the actual war began. Furthermore, in examining Romer’s figures, he comes to the conclusion that by the fourth quarter of 1940, only 46 percent of the recovery had been accomplished.

In a way, all of this is moot for several reasons. To start with, even if Romer, Summers and DeLong were correct there is no possibility of a New Deal inspired recovery is in the works. If there is anything that the Obama presidency has demonstrated, it is that Herbert Hoover rather than the New Deal inspires it.

And if you take Krugman at his word that a world war could do the trick, it is precluded by the nuclear facts on the ground. American capitalism had no compunction about blowing up most of Germany and Japan in the course of preparing for postwar reconstruction led by American investments, but in the epoch of the hydrogen bomb only the cockroach will be left to do business.

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