Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 28, 2012

Antibodies; Evil

Filed under: Fascism,Film,religion,repression — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

Within the past week or so, I have seen two movies on Netflix streaming that remind me why I like “foreign” films. It has nothing to do with being a snob—even though I confess to being one from time to time. It has more to do with a need to be entertained. A few weeks ago, I got this comment from Ben Courtice under my review of The Forgotten Space, a Marxist documentary I compared favorably to “escapist trash”:

I actually have a preference for one piece of escapist crap after another – I spend my days as an activist wading through torrents of information about how the world is going to shit – but this sounds really good! Thanks I’ll look out for it.

I told Ben that I might have something to say about “Woman in Black”, “Chronicle”, and “The Grey”, three films I saw at my local Cineplex, but simply lacked the motivation to follow through since despite being watchable, they were just not good enough to qualify as “escapist” fare.

Interestingly enough, the European films reviewed below pay homage to Hollywood “escapist trash”, perhaps demonstrating that other countries can take our own designs and improve upon them, like the latest Chinese consumer electronics.

(Sorry, English-subtitled trailer for Antibodies not available.)

The first is a German film made in 2005 titled Antibodies that might be described as a shameless rip-off of Silence of the Lambs.

The two main characters are a serial killer named Gabriel Engel (André Hennicke) and a part-time cop from the boondocks named Michael Martens (Wotan Wilke Möhring) who comes to the big city where Engel is being jailed in order to determine whether he killed a teenage girl in his tiny farming village. All of Engel’s victims were boys so there was some question in Martens’s mind whether she was one of his victims.

Engel enjoys taunting Martens through the bars of his cell, in the same way that Hannibal Lechter taunted Agent Starling, another cop from the boondocks. Engel insists that he is not the girl’s killer and teases Martens with insinuations that the cop might be hiding something, very possibly some dark secret about his sexual impulses. Since Martens is a pious, if not downright prudish, Catholic, he dismisses Engel’s insinuations and presses on with his interrogation.

When he returns home, Martens finds himself at odds with his fellow villagers who resent his ongoing investigations of a homegrown murderer, not Engel. The most violently opposed to the investigation, which includes a blood test for a DNA sample to compare with the semen-soiled underpants of the young victim, is his father-in-law who shoots Martens’s dog in an opening scene when they are out deer-hunting.

The village is a reminder of how backward rural society is in Germany, especially in Catholic villages. The sexual repression is thick enough to cut with a knife. Director/screenwriter Christian Alvart is clearly tuned in to the same morbidity found in Michael Haneke’s 2009 The White Ribbon, a film focused on the rural social base of an incipient Nazi movement. In my review I noted:

Beneath the Baron is the Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) who is enough to turn anybody into an atheist. A rigidly authoritarian figure, especially to his own children, he decides to tie his teenaged son’s hands to the bed each night to prevent him from masturbating. The name of the movie originates from his decision to force his children to wear white ribbons as a reminder of their sins.

While the last thing in the world I would want to do is disclose the powerful ending of this film, I can say that it casts the small-town cop and his teenage son in a modern version of the biblical tale of God ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son, in order to demonstrate his faith. I always found this story that formed the core of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling about as effective an argument against religion as can be found.

The other film is Evil, a 2003 Swedish work directed by Mikael Håfström and based on the semi-autobiographical novel Ondskan written by Jan Guillou, a long-time leftist like the late Stieg Larsson.

The main character is Erik Ponti (Andreas Wilson), a 15 year old who lives with his mother and his sadistic stepfather who beats him over the slightest infraction. Not being able to strike back at the man, Erik takes it out on his schoolmates who are never able to match his fighting skills and–more importantly—his blind rage.

Hoping that a change of scenery might calm him down, his mother sends him to Stjärnsberg, a boarding school that is about as rigidly class-stratified as feudal India. Greeted by Otto Silverhielm (Gustaf Skarsgård), a self-described nobleman in the senior class, Erik learns the rules of the game. If he stays out of trouble, he will eventually become a senior and enjoy all the privileges that go with that status. Silverhielm also clues him on the social make-up of the school. There are aristocrats like him, students from wealthy backgrounds, and ordinary folk whose parents manage to scrape together the money to send them to Stjärnsberg. That last category describes Erik, whose mother sold family heirlooms to raise the tuition money.

Erik is escorted to his dormitory room where he meets his new roommate Pierre Tanguy (Henrik Lundström), the bookish and physically ungifted son of a Swiss diplomat. As the two take an immediate liking to each other (the case of opposites attracting each other), Pierre makes sure to warn him about student life at the school. If you keep a low profile, you will do okay. If you get noticed, especially by the upperclassmen, you will have big problems.

In one of Erik’s first classes, he is introduced to the school’s Nazi in residence who lectures the students about racial differences. The Nordic race is handsome and physically powerful. The further south you go, the weaker the specimen. He has Erik and Pierre stand up in front of the class to demonstrate the racial differences, much to their chagrin.

At lunch the next day, Erik gets an introduction to the kind of hazing that is universally accepted there, just as it is in fraternities and private schools worldwide. In a school like Silverhielm, it is not just about social acceptance. It is about inculcating the kind of deference to authority that serve as a lubricant in the machinery of the military and the corporation. When a student sitting at his table uses the word “crap” in a sentence, an upperclassmen calls him over to receive punishment (cursing is strictly prohibited, as is smoking), which consists of being smacked on the head with a butter knife. It is much more painful than it sounds.

A few moments later, Erik makes the same infraction. But when he is ordered to receive his punishment, he refuses. Like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and countless other memorable characters in prison and sadistic private school movies made in Hollywood, Erik is a stubborn nonconformist. He is also like James Dean, a “rebel without a cause”. Just to make sure that the audience makes this specific connection, Erik and Pierre confess their love of this quintessential 1950s rebellious youth movie in the course of sharing enthusiasms. As will be instantly recognizable, the two boys are stand-in’s for the James Dean and Sal Mineo characters in Nicholas Ray’s classic.

The plot revolves around the clash between the upperclassmen and Erik who refuses to bend to their will. No matter how much they escalate their harassment and physical abuse, he refuses to fight. He understands that if he gets expelled from Stjärnsberg, he will not be able to get into college.

Evil was nominated for best foreign film of the year at the Academy Awards in 2003, but the novelist upon whose book the film was based on was not permitted into the United States since he is listed as a terrorist by the State Department.

I strongly recommend a look at the wiki on Jan Guillou that leads off as follows:

Jan Oskar Sverre Lucien Henri Guillou (Swedish pronunciation: [jɑːn ɡɪjuː]; born 17 January 1944) is a Swedish author and journalist. Among his books are a series of spy fiction novels about a spy named Carl Hamilton, and a trilogy of historical fiction novels about a Knight Templar, Arn Magnusson. He is the owner of one of the largest publishing companies in Sweden, Piratförlaget (English: Pirate Publishing), together with Liza Marklund and his wife, publisher Ann-Marie Skarp.

Guillou’s fame in Sweden was established during his time as an investigative journalist. In 1973, he and co-reporter Peter Bratt exposed a secret intelligence organization in Sweden, Informationsbyrån (IB). He is still active within journalism as a column writer for the Swedish evening tabloid Aftonbladet.

In October 2009, the tabloid Expressen accused Guillou of having been active as an agent of the Soviet spy organization KGB between 1967 and 1972. Jan Guillou confirmed he had a series of contacts with KGB representatives during this period, he also admits to having received payments from KGB, but maintains that his purpose was to collect information for his journalistic work. The accusation was based on documents released from the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) and interviews with former KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky. In a later trial Expressen denied having accused Guillou of having been a Soviet spy, claiming that this was a false interpretation of its headlines and reporting.

In 1973, Folket i Bild/Kulturfront, a left-wing magazine, published a series of articles written by Guillou and Peter Bratt, revealing a Swedish secret intelligence agency called Informationsbyrån (“The Information Bureau” or IB for short). The articles, based on information initially furnished by former IB employee Håkan Isacson, described the IB as a secret organization that gathered information on Swedish communists and others deemed to be “security risks”. The organization operated outside of the framework of the defense and ordinary intelligence, and was invisible in terms of state budget allocations. The articles in Folket i Bild/Kulturfront accused the IB staff of being engaged in alleged murder, break-ins, wiretapping against foreign embassies in Sweden and spying abroad.

The exposure of the IB in the magazine, which included headshots with names and social security numbers of some of the alleged staff published under the headline “Spies”, led to a major domestic political scandal known as the “IB affair” (IB-affären). The activities ascribed to this secret outfit and its alleged ties to the Swedish Social Democratic Party were denied by Prime Minister Olof Palme, Defense Minister Sven Andersson and the chief of the Swedish defence forces, Stig Synnergren. However, later investigations by various journalists and by a public commissions, as well as autobiographies by the persons involved, have confirmed some of the activities described by Bratt and Guillou. In 2002, the public commission published a 3,000 page report where research about the IB-affair was included.

Guillou, Peter Bratt and Håkan Isacson were all arrested, tried in camera and convicted of espionage. According to Bratt, the verdict required some stretching of established judicial practice on the part of the court since none of them were accused of having acted in collusion with a foreign power. After one appeal Guillou’s sentence was lessened from one year to 10 months. Guillou and Bratt served part of their sentence in solitary cells. Guillou was kept first at Långholmen Prison in central Stockholm and later at Österåker Prison north of the capital.

Like Stieg Larssen, Guillou has devoted much of his journalist career to exposing the ultraright in Sweden. When my wife and I began watching Evil through our beloved, new Roku box, she was puzzled at first by the scene in the classroom where the Nazi professor was spouting his nonsense. “How can that be in a social democratic country”, she asked.

That was how it appeared generally, but I reminded her of the Dragon Tattoo novels that revealed the underbelly of Swedish society. Although I made a mental note to myself to do some research on Swedish fascism in the Columbia Library after reading the first two books in Larsson’s trilogy, I never got around to it. As is usually the case with me, research topics vie for my attention. Maybe after I retire, I will have the time to give them all the attention they deserve. Before that glorious day arrives, however, I hope to have more to say on the topic of the Swedish fascist movements.

Whither ’21st century Venezuelan socialism?’

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

A guest post by Saroj Giri


Capitalism Expands but the Discourse is Radicalized: Whither ’21st Century Venezuelan Socialism’?

by Saroj Giri

University of Delhi


‘Protagonistic democracy’, ‘initiative from below’, or ‘autonomous agency’ is presented by critical left supporters of Venezuelan socialism as counter-balancing Chavez’s statist top-down tendencies. Why should it only counter-balance and not go beyond Chavismo and any reified state power? This has to do with presenting it, often unwittingly, as an undifferentiated bloc, albeit internally highly democratic and empowering. What therefore needs to be highlighted is internal contradiction and differentiation within protagonistic democracy, so that what Marx in the Communist Manifesto once called ‘a line of march’ of the movement as a whole is emphasized – something overlooked by scholars like Michael Lebowitz. Without a ‘line of march’, the most radical democratic practices can get boxed into a ‘bloc’ fighting a reified, externalized enemy. ‘Class struggle’ gets reduced to a populist fight against ‘alien elements’, ‘conspiratorial foreign oligarchs’ and so on – is this not the experience of ‘21st century humanist socialism’ so far?

download article

February 27, 2012

The Oscar for Best Picture: 50 years ago and today

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

Fifty years ago the Academy Award for best picture was given to “West Side Story”, originally a Broadway musical with obvious New Deal popular front cultural antecedents. It was co-directed by Jerome Robbins, the choreographer and ex-member of the CPUSA who had named names in the 1950s but never abandoned his liberal politics. As it turned out, the other four nominated films also had some interesting connections with the left, as we shall see.

Robbins was the choreographer for the original Broadway version that was written by Arthur Laurents. Like Robbins, Laurents was a CP’er but unlike Robbins refused to name names. For this offense, he was blacklisted. As part of his “subversive” past, Laurents had written a review of “Home of the Brave”, a 1949 film about racism in the army that was based on his screenplay, for the Daily Worker. The film starred Jeff Corey as a psychiatrist treating a Black soldier whose paralysis was psychosomatic, a result of the brutal racism he suffered in the military. Corey, like Laurents, was a blacklistee. The score for “West Side Story” was composed by Leonard Bernstein, never a CP’er but certainly part of the broad milieu around the party during its New Deal heydays.

When I looked up the Best Picture for 1962, I didn’t really expect to discover a political connection but did expect to confirm my suspicions that the Hollywood of today can’t compare to the one of my youth. That being said, one of the runner-up’s to “West Side Story” was a noirish film called “The Hustler” that starred Paul Newman as an ambitious and unscrupulous billiards pro. It was written and directed by Robert Rossen, another blacklistee, who was one of the greats. In addition to “The Hustler”, he directed “A Walk in the Sun”, a film that makes “Saving Private Ryan” look like the simultaneously cheap imitation and cash-bloated production that it is.

Continuing in the same vein, “Judgment at Nuremberg”, another runner-up, was directed by Stanley Kramer who had a more adversarial relationship to the CP. Kramer was nothing more than a New Deal Democrat who had no problems working with CP’ers until the Witch Hunt took a turn for the worse. Kramer’s screenwriter for “High Noon” was Carl Foreman, a CP’er who he had a long-standing partnership with. When HUAC went after Foreman, Kramer tried to throw him overboard and remove his name from the film’s closing credits. Other members of the “High Noon” team intervened, including the star Gary Cooper. While Kramer was obviously a bit of a skunk, he certainly was someone to be reckoned with.

Interestingly enough, Foreman landed on his feet. Alongside “Judgment at Nuremberg”, “The Guns of Navarone” was nominated for best picture of the year. While the film was nothing but an adventure tale, it had some powerful lead characters, especially Gregory Peck as the leader of a squad that hoped to destroy Nazi artillery at the top of a cliff. I was intrigued to discover that Barbet Schroeder was part of the writing team. Although he was capable of writing potboilers like this, he got his start working with Jean Luc-Godard as part of the New Wave movement in France. Among his credits is “Barfly”, a movie based on Charles Bukowski’s writings. But an even more interesting member of the writing team is none other than Carl Foreman who was also the film’s producer. Obviously you can’t keep a good man down. “The Guns of Navarone” was directed by J. Lee Thompson, a British WWII veteran who made his mark in the 1950s with socially aware films like “Yield to the Night”, a woman’s prison tale that took a strong stand against capital punishment.

Finally, we come to “Fanny”, another musical that was directed by Josh Logan. Although I never saw this film, I have to believe that the Academy was making a fairly reasonable decision in considering it, given the talents of the people who made it. Julius Epstein, who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Logan, had won an Academy Award in 1942 for the screenplay for “Casablanca”, a pretty good film by any stretch of the imagination. (The script was co-written with his twin brother Philip.)

And—guess what—Epstein was a man of the left, although probably not a member of the CP. The wiki on Epstein states:

Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., had a tortuous relationship with the Epstein brothers. While he could not argue with their commercial acumen, he deplored their pranks, their work habits and the hours they kept. In 1952, Warner gave their names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). They never testified before the committee, but on a HUAC questionnaire, when asked if they ever were members of a “subversive organization,” they responded, “Yes. Warner Brothers.”

Another member of the “Fanny” screenwriting team was S.M. Behrman, a Jew like most of these folks, who made his mark in Broadway before going to Hollywood. When he wasn’t writing Broadway plays, he was writing for The New Republic, The New Yorker, and the New York Times—obviously not a slouch.

Returning to Josh Logan, perhaps it speaks for itself to note that he dropped out of Princeton in 1930, half way into his senior year. He gave up an Ivy League degree in order to study theater with Konstantin Stanislavsky in Russia. Stanislavsky gave the young man a parting gift when he was about to return to America, a signed photograph inscribed with what would become his favorite quote, “Love the art in yourself, and not yourself in art.”

What a different world we are living in today when something like “The Artist” gets named best picture of the year. I doubt if I will ever be inspired enough to give this movie the proper trashing it deserves, but will simply let a piece in Awl Magazine speak for me for the time being. Choire Sicha wrote:

So… basically The Artist is about this chick who meets a much older guy like three times for all of 30 seconds each and then she devotes her life to stalking/saving him, despite him being a married, entitled, pitiful, self-serving alcoholic, and despite her being a smart, savvy, talented, sexy professional, and then also the only black people in the film are literally carrying spears and wearing loincloths? And really hot French guys are actually made kind of ugly when they have gross tiny mustaches?

Right, that’s what I thought, just checking.

I suppose that given the overall decline of film art for the mass market there would be a decline in the ceremony itself. While I was watching the proceedings with my wife, waiting for “Californication”—our favorite show—to come on, I felt increasingly annoyed by the incestuous character of the presenters, the winners, and the audience. It was if they were throwing a party and we were privileged to be watching them have a good time. The days when a Marlin Brando would confront those gathered there with some grievances about American social injustice are long gone. Instead we got an aging Billy Crystal telling toothless jokes for the audience’s pleasure, a court jester in his dotage.

But I felt enough was enough when during the presentation of an award for a documentary short there were shouts from a couple of members of the audience: “Scorsese, Scorcese!” When the presenters heard his name cried out, they took a couple of tiny bottles of booze from their handbags and began chugging. What was the point? Why would I care about an inside joke like that? And why would I want to see the 116th close-up of Martin Scorsese in his seat, mugging at the camera? Thank god “Californication” began a moment or two later.

For those who were smart enough to avoid this fiasco, I can certainly recommend a sharp article in Salon.com titled Oscars 2012: The movies’ most painful night  written by Andrew O’Hehir, their film critic. He states:

Maybe the joke about George Clooney kissing Billy Crystal in a fake scene from “The Descendants” would have been funnier if Crystal didn’t actually look like an old lady. That moment was awkward — like virtually everything else about Sunday’s 84th Academy Awards, — but  it was also confusing. Was George supposed to be delivering a goodbye smooch to his wife, or his mom? Seconds later, we were treated to Crystal in blackface, or at least in tan-face, sorta-kinda doing Sammy Davis Jr. Extra-double awkward and confusing! Even if you’ve heard of Davis (and half the people watching probably hadn’t), it took several beats to grasp exactly what target Crystal was shooting for. (It’s been more than 25 years since Crystal played Davis on “Saturday Night Live.”) Liberace’s black half-sister, perhaps?

As I have stated repeatedly here, the decline of Hollywood is clearly in line with the decline of America as an industrial power, and—more importantly—its decline as a civilization. The men and women who made movies from the 30s through the early 60s were generally better educated (meant in the overall sense, not where they went to college) and more politically engaged.

Apparently the average person has begun to concur with the Unrepentant Marxist, if you look at the key measure for this industry: ticket sales. Last December 25th, the N.Y. Times reported that ticket sales were a half-billion dollars behind the previous year. While some analysts blamed the recession for the failure, at least one industry figure was candid enough to admit the truth:

What has gone wrong? Plenty, say studio distribution executives, who point to competition for leisure dollars, particularly among financially pressed young people (the movie industry’s most coveted demographic); too many family movies; and the continued erosion of star power.

One more thing: “You have to go back and look at the content,” said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Brothers. “Good movies always rise to the occasion. Bad ones, not so much.”

Perhaps the biggest explanation for Hollywood’s decline is the impact that television has had. Screenwriting has become more and more of a discipline that is shaped by television in general, and situation comedies in particular. The search for a cheap gag overrides everything. And if you are making a “serious” movie, you tend to emulate the kind of writing that is found on Lifetime Cable or CSI, etc.

For example, Descendants, a film I found utterly unwatchable, has the same kind of sentimentality you find in television movies or weekly dramas. After 15 minutes, I figured out where it was going and took the first exit ramp. Despite its 89 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I am sure that I would have concurred with the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman if I had the patience to stick with it to the bitter end:

Despite the large, and talented, cast that Payne has assembled, The Descendants revolves entirely around its supremely amiable star. But, even with the crutch provided by an insistent voiceover, Clooney’s part is underwritten. Moreover, the actor’s own blessings are so evident that it’s hard to accept him as the beleaguered (if fabulously wealthy) everyman that the movie demands he be. With supporting characters called upon to react toward him or develop around him as necessary in a given situation, the narrative feels less like an unfolding novel than like an inflated short story. Slowly rolling downhill, The Descendants takes a turn or two but is basically always en route toward the reconciliation that’s a foregone conclusion.

Payne’s film, which closed last month’s New York Film Festival on an upbeat note, has been generally hailed for its enlightened sensitivity and modest humanism; it’s being touted by industry savants for a Best Picture Oscar because it’s the sort of movie that, in resolving a tragically irresolvable situation, encourages audiences and studios to feel good about themselves. Still, save for a reflexive response to the spectacle of “girlfriend in a coma” (ironically, the best scenes are the solos Clooney directs at comatose Hastie—moments that make clear what is otherwise implicit), it left me cold. The pathos is as unearned as the protagonist’s privilege.

And speaking of the decay of Western Civilization, we must report that the brilliant and accomplished critic J. Hoberman is no longer with the Voice, another victim of cost-cutting that leaves this once-proud newsweekly just another piece of garbage in our cultural dump.

The Economic Function Of Energy

Filed under: energy — louisproyect @ 1:20 am

The Economic Function Of Energy
by Manuel García, Jr.

(Swans – February 27, 2012)  Economics is the consumption of energy to process matter and produce action for the maintenance and renovation of society. Just as form follows function, the right choice of an energy technology for any society is a function of its economic model and socio-economic goals. Politics is the process of determining the allocation of costs and the distribution of benefits for an economy. Therefore, the selection of the energy technologies to power a society is based on political consensus and political power.

Industrialization is a synchronized and mechanized form of economics. For example, suburbia and exurbia are industrializations of the concepts of village, town, and city. They are the stretching of human settlements into 2D space with a compensatory time contraction provided by an energy-intensive kinetic network of unitary transport vehicles.

Public debates on the influence of industrialization on the global heat balance (the average temperature of much of the biosphere), and the sensitivity of climate change to inputs of industrial waste heat and waste matter (e.g., CO2, methane, soot), are political debates on economic forms couched in terms of the relative convenience, profitability and environmental impact of different energy technologies.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art18/mgarci41.html

February 25, 2012


Filed under: humor — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

February 23, 2012

The Louvin Brothers

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

NY Times Sunday Book Review February 17, 2012

Two-Part Harmony


The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers
By Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer
Illustrated. 297 pp. Igniter/It Books/HarperCollins Publishers. $22.99

By Charlie Louvin’s own account, people who saw the Louvin Brothers perform were mystified by the experience. Ira Louvin was a full head taller than his younger brother, played the mandolin like Bill Monroe and sang in an impossibly high, tense, quivering tenor. Charlie strummed a guitar, grinned like a vaudevillian and handled the bottom register. But every so often, in the middle of a song, some hidden signal flashed and the brothers switched places — with Ira swooping down from the heights, and Charlie angling upward — and even the most careful listeners would lose track of which man was carrying the lead. This was more than close-harmony singing; each instance was an act of transubstantiation. “It baffled a lot of people,” Charlie Louvin explains in his crackling new memoir. “We could change in the middle of a word. Part of the reason we could do that was that we’d learned to have a good ear for other people’s voices when we sang Sacred Harp. But the other part is that we were brothers.”

Ira died in a car wreck in 1965. Charlie — who rolled his first cigarette at the age of 5 — died last year at 83, just two months after talking the book out. (The contributions of his co-author, Benjamin Whitmer, are pretty much invisible, which makes them difficult to praise, and all the more praiseworthy.) True to his subtitle, Charlie tells Ira’s story, as well as his own, devoting 47 chapters to their shared lives and careers, and just three more to the years that followed Ira’s death. He is profane, piquant and brutally honest in ways that are sure to offend the country music establishment but might have delighted Ira, who was no less of a demon than the ones the Louvins — who cut their teeth as a gospel duo, and never really left the church behind — so often sang about.

Charlie and Ira came up hard, on a tiny Depression-era cotton farm in southern Appalachia. Their mother taught them songs from the Sacred Harp hymnal, while their father worked and beat them, mercilessly, until they felt they had no choice but to sing their way off the land. “We were two determined little bastards,” Louvin recalls. “We were no good at quitting at all. Whether or not he meant to, I’d say that’s one of the greatest gifts Papa gave us.”

That gift (a great inspiration to the Everly Brothers, the Byrds and many other harmony singers who followed in their footsteps) carried the Louvins through two difficult decades — it took them years to make it, and just as they did, Elvis Presley came along and swept the music world they’d known aside. The ups and downs were bad for Ira, who’d gotten the worst of his father’s beatings and turned into a meanspirited, self-destructive drunk. But they’re good for the book, which is full of fistfights, road stories and behind-the-scenes looks at fellow travelers: Presley, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Little Jimmy Dickens and not a few others. In one chapter, titled “Duets,” Louvin recalls the Delmore, Monroe, Wilburn, Everly and Bolick brothers (the last performed as the Blue Sky Boys) — “duets that put out the most beautiful music you could imagine, but when they weren’t onstage, they wouldn’t speak to each other. And they wouldn’t speak to you, either, if you happened to like the other one.”

“Somehow,” he says, “Ira and I managed to remain some kind of friends.” If so, it was despite Ira’s own best efforts to ruin every relationship in sight. One night, drunk, he said a crude, racist thing, ensuring that Presley, who’d called the brothers “his favorite duet” and opened for Ira and Charlie on one of his first tours, would never record “The Christian Life,” “Satan Is Real,” or any other Louvin Brothers song. (“If I had to guess, I’d say that one statement by Ira cost the Louvin Brothers music catalog two or three million dollars,” Charlie says.) On other nights, Ira smashed and stomped his mandolin to pieces (he’d later glue it back together), fought with drunks in the audience or simply failed to show up, costing the brothers top-tier bookings and getting them banned from their regular, hard-earned slot on the Grand Ole Opry. “It was an ugly thing when he drank,” Charlie recalls, “and there was no fun in it.”

And then there was the womanizing and spousal abuse. In February 1963, Ira Louvin wrapped a telephone cord around his wife’s neck. She shot him six times with a .22-caliber pistol, and when the police arrived on the scene she was said to have told them, “If the blankety-blank don’t die, I’ll shoot him again.” Ira lived, and Charlie stuck by him (and, amazingly, the wife) and ignored Ira’s threats to quit the duet. But the Louvin Brothers broke up that year.

Ira was traveling with a new wife (his fourth) and another couple on the night of his wreck. Atypically, according to Charlie, Ira — who had a D.U.I. warrant out for his arrest — seems to have been sober that night, while the driver of the car that hit him was “nine times over the legal limit for drunkenness.” Oddly, given his habit of smashing mandolins, Ira’s new mandolin — a four-stringed, electric instrument he’d designed himself — was “the only thing that wasn’t smashed to splinters.”

Alex Abramovich is writing a history of rock ’n’ roll.

February 22, 2012

Assessing the Russian and Egyptian crackdown on imperialist NGO’s

Filed under: Egypt,mechanical anti-imperialism,Russia,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

Spy versus spy

Last month Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, was forced to admit in a BBC documentary that a fake rock was used to spy on Russians. The Independent reported:

A former UK government official has admitted Britain was behind a plot to spy on Russians with a device hidden in a fake rock, it emerged today.

Russia made the allegations in January 2006, but they were not publicly accepted by the UK before now.

Jonathan Powell, then prime minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, told a BBC documentary: “The spy rock was embarrassing.

The Russian security service, the FSB, linked the rock with claims that British security services were making covert payments to pro-democracy and human rights groups.

Then president Vladimir Putin later introduced a law restricting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from getting funding from foreign governments, causing many to close down.

Cracking down on NGO’s is old news in Russia. Back in 2005, a law was passed that effectively made it impossible for Amnesty International, Greenpeace or any other group with foreign funding to operate in Russia.

Putin has often played the nationalist card, most recently accusing Golos, an electoral watchdog, of being a tool of the West, as the NY Times reported in December:

Golos’s critics in the Russian government say its work is tainted by the money it receives from two American agencies, the National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Agency for International Development. A promotional video clip for a report scheduled to be broadcast on Friday on the NTV channel, owned by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, features images of suitcases stuffed with $100 bills juxtaposed with footage of Golos’s leaders as a portentous voice asks, “Who is behind these ‘independent observers?’ ” A pro-government blogger has posted what appears to be paperwork showing that Golos received $92,653 from the United States government for the month of February.

Global Research, a website run by Michel Chossudovsky who is arguably the planet’s leading exponent of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” line of reasoning, published an article by Eric Walberg on February 9th titled Vladimir Putin and Russia’s “White Revolution” that described the judo-practicing ex-President as a kind of “lesser evil” to the opposition in the street that has been likened to the white wine-drinking/brie-eating crowd on the north side of Tehran that had the unvarnished nerve to oppose Ahmadinejad:

Putin’s statist sovereign democracy – with transparent elections – might not be such a bad alternative to what passes for democracy in much of the West. His new Eurasian Union could help spread a more responsible political governance across the continent. It may not be what the NED has in mind, but it would be welcomed by all the “stan” citizens, not to mention China’s beleaguered Uighurs. This “EU” is striving not towards disintegration and weakness, but towards integration and mutual security, without any need for US/NATO bases and slick NED propaganda.

I date my distrust for this kind of apologetics to 2002 or so when Jared Israel began to post material to Marxmail that elevated Putin into some kind of “anti-imperialist” hero. I could tolerate his over-the-top worship of Milosevic, even though I was sometimes embarrassed to be on the same side of a debate with him against KLA supporters on the left, but something about the pro-Putin propaganda really turned me off. Israel’s articles should sound very familiar to those who have been exposed to this sort of thing on Counterpunch, Global Research, and MRZine:

…the US establishment, and the Empire of which it is a leading part – perhaps we should call it the New World Empire – is very much interested in protecting its current hegemonic position in the world from possible future challenges coming from Eurasia – namely, from the still-nuclear-armed former Soviet Union.

To “strengthen civil society” these fake-democracy funding agencies set up NGOs, newspapers and TV stations and political parties as a Fifth Column to destabilize local societies along vulnerable lines of conflict. Or they inflame regional conflicts in the guise of “peace” and “mediation” groups. Ultimately these Fifth Column groups stage, or attempt to stage coup d’états, always under the guise of democratic reform, thus putting US operatives in power.

This happened in Yugoslavia and Philippines. It was attempted in Belarus and Venezuela. The basis is being laid for such coup d’états all over the former Soviet Union.

Looking back on this period, I’d have to say my instincts were pretty healthy. Within a year or so, Israel had dropped the “anti-imperialist” pose and begun to write articles defending the Likud and calling 9/11 an inside job. There was always something conspiratorial about his mindset and it was a fairly easy transition from hating the KLA to hating Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular. If there is any consolation, he seems to be retired politically.

The Egyptian army has studied Putin’s methods apparently, but is acting even more boldly—throwing Sam LaHood, the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in jail for working for an NGO that gets overseas funding without the government’s permission. (The LaHoods are Lebanese Christians.)

In today’s N.Y. Times, Thomas Friedman waxes indignantly over this affront:

Sadly, the transitional government in Egypt today appears determined to shoot itself in both feet.

On Sunday, it will put on trial 43 people, including at least 16 U.S. citizens, for allegedly bringing unregistered funds into Egypt to promote democracy without a license. Egypt has every right to control international organizations operating within its borders. But the truth is that when these democracy groups filed their registration papers years ago under the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak, they were informed that the papers were in order and that approval was pending. The fact that now — after Mubarak has been deposed by a revolution — these groups are being threatened with jail terms for promoting democracy without a license is a very disturbing sign. It tells you how incomplete the “revolution” in Egypt has been and how vigorously the counter-revolutionary forces are fighting back.

This sordid business makes one weep and wonder how Egypt will ever turn the corner. Egypt is running out of foreign reserves, its currency is falling, inflation is rising and unemployment is rampant. Yet the priority of a few retrograde Mubarak holdovers is to put on trial staffers from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which are allied with the two main U.S. political parties, as well as from Freedom House and some European groups. Their crime was trying to teach Egypt’s young democrats how to monitor elections and start parties to engage in the very democratic processes that the Egyptian Army set up after Mubarak’s fall. Thousands of Egyptians had participated in their seminars in recent years.

Now if you were a consistent “anti-imperialist”, you’d have to back the Egyptian military, right? That would seem to be the position of Global Research, which has never been afraid of sounding stupid. In an article by Tony Cartalucci titled The US Engineered “Arab Spring”: The NGO Raids in Egypt, we learn that the “Arab Spring” was nothing but a Western conspiracy—not that different it would seem from 9/11:

In January of 2011, we were told that “spontaneous,” “indigenous” uprising had begun sweeping North Africa and the Middle East, including Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, in what was hailed as the “Arab Spring.” It would be almost four months before the corporate-media would admit that the US had been behind the uprisings and that they were anything but “spontaneous,” or “indigenous.” In an April 2011 article published by the New York Times titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” it was stated:

A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington.

The article would also add, regarding the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED):

The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.

It is hardly a speculative theory then, that the uprisings were part of an immense geopolitical campaign conceived in the West and carried out through its proxies with the assistance of disingenuous organizations including NED, NDI, IRI, and Freedom House and the stable of NGOs they maintain throughout the world. Preparations for the “Arab Spring” began not as unrest had already begun, but years before the first “fist” was raised, and within seminar rooms in D.C. and New York, US-funded training facilities in Serbia, and camps held in neighboring countries, not within the Arab World itself.

Cartalucci informs his readers that other nations are under siege from the West in this fashion, including Thailand, Russia, Myanmar and Malaysia—a virtual rogue’s gallery. Now, to give credit where credit is due, this at least has the merit of consistency: in order to take a position on a conflict between a state and its opponents, all you have to do is determine whom the West supports and then take the opposite position. In the case of Myanmar, Cartalucci is not afraid to stake out a truly absurd position: “’Democracy icon’” Aung San Suu Kyi’s entire political apparatus is US and British funded.” You see, it does not really matter how many peasants and workers have been murdered fighting for a better society. As long as there is US and British funding, that’s all you need to know.

This, I should add, is not the most outrageous position staked out by Global Research. Applying the same logic, Michel Chossudovsky has rendered the verdict that Occupy Wall Street was the American “color revolution”, implying of course that the cops had every right to pepper-spray demonstrators.

If you really want to understand how such people think, there are two important things to keep in mind. Firstly, this is the Stalinism of our age. While the CPUSA and other such groups would never dream of arguing along these lines, something that would isolate them in the “progressive” circles they travel in, this is exactly how Stalinism made the case against Trotsky and the old Bolsheviks in the 1930s. You had the imperialists on one side and “actually existing socialism” on the other. Anybody who failed to “defend” the USSR, which really meant defending every one of Stalin’s twists and turns, was an enemy of the Soviet Union. While few people outside the Stalinist milieu ever accused Trotsky of being on the imperialist payroll, this was the line of attack in the Moscow Trials.

It is easy to understand why some people are enamored with the “follow the money” way of thinking. It saves you from the trouble of dealing with contradiction. Instead of seeing the complex reality of young Egyptians turning to the NED for funding or to Gene Sharp for training, they simply lump them with Georgians, Serbs or any other “color revolution”. Essentially, this is a form of formal logic that most people absorb growing up in bourgeois society. It takes the form of “if a = b, then c”. But what if a is both b and not b? Arrghh. Don’t bother me with complexities…

The other thing to understand is that the conspiratorial mindset is very deeply engrained in some sectors on the left. Do you remember the old Mad Magazine spy versus spy comic? I suppose most of you are too young to remember, but it depicted a world in which spying counted for everything. It was very much tuned in to the zeitgeist that included James Bond novels and Cold War media reports about Soviet spies under every bed.

In such a world, the needs of—for example—Hungarian workers did not count. 1956 was about nothing except Western spooks trying to subvert a “socialist” country. If the reality of working class exploitation under Stalinist bureaucracy got in the way, the best remedy was to sweep it under the rug.

Unfortunately, the only thing that got swept under the rug after more than a half-century of lies, violence and corruption was the socialist experiment itself. Surely we can do better in the 21st century.

February 20, 2012

Sign a petition against racist t-shirts

Filed under: racism,Sikhs — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

February 17, 2012 (Fremont, CA) – The Sikh Coalition urges consumers worldwide to sign our petition to CafePress, demanding that the company stop selling racist t-shirts that promote bigotry against Sikhs.

CafePress, Inc. is based in San Mateo, California and is one of the largest online retailers in the United States.  Sadly, the company website offers for sale a pair of t-shirts that say “No More Ragheads!” and “No More Towelheads!”  These racial slurs are often used to disparage the Sikh turban and have been used against Sikhs in the context of hate crimes.

If you believe that CafePress should remove these offensive and dangerous products from its inventory, please make your voices heard and sign our petition today.

John Holloway’s lowered horizons

Filed under: autonomism,Greece — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

John Holloway

Last Friday John Holloway wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free titled “Greece shows us how to protest against a failed system” that encapsulates the weakness of autonomist Marxism.  Best known for his controversial 2002 “Change the World without Taking Power”, Holloway’s article addresses itself mostly to the liberating effects of rioting:

I do not like violence. I do not think that very much is gained by burning banks and smashing windows. And yet I feel a surge of pleasure when I see the reaction in Athens and the other cities in Greece to the acceptance by the Greek parliament of the measures imposed by the European Union. More: if there had not been an explosion of anger, I would have felt adrift in a sea of depression.

But when it comes to the concrete measures that can finally remove the stinger from the neck of the Greek people, he sets the bar rather low:

Behind the spectacle of the burning banks in Greece lies a deeper process, a quieter movement of people refusing to pay bus fares, electricity bills, motorway tolls, bank debts; a movement, born of necessity and conviction, of people organising their lives in a different way, creating communities of mutual support and food networks, squatting empty buildings and land, creating community gardens, returning to the countryside, turning their backs on the politicians (who are now afraid to show themselves in the streets) and creating directly democratic forms of taking social decisions.

You’ll notice that every single one of these measures amount to a kind of counter-culture that effectively accept the continuation of corporate/financial predation. It is as if somebody wrote an article in 1932 putting the best possible face on people in the American countryside going out to shoot squirrels because they lacked the money to buy meat. It also makes you wonder how tuned in Holloway is to the needs of ordinary working people. An unemployed father of six children who cannot pay his rent is not likely to be cheered by the advice that he and his family can go squat in an abandoned building. In general, what Holloway is offering is a kind of life-style that might be attractive—so to speak—to people who have not entered the work force to begin with but it is not the sort of thing that can rally the vast majority of Greeks who are wage slaves, past or present.

With respect to returning to the countryside, this is a “solution” that the N.Y. Times Sunday Magazine finds quite acceptable:

Astoundingly, about 80 percent of Greeks own a home. It may be on family land on a distant island, but it is still a home. Zacharias, for example, lives on land that his grandfather bought decades ago with coupons from a newspaper promotion. Many of those who have lost jobs in the city therefore have rural homes to retreat to, though whether there is income once they get there is another matter.

The real consideration that does not seem to enter Holloway’s mind, however, is whether such a forced retreat to the countryside is consistent with the emancipatory agenda of Marxism. Freedom is not really about finding personal solutions to capitalist crisis, like going to live in the countryside until the storm blows over. When you stop and think about it, this is about as liberating as some college graduate moving in with their parents because he or she can’t find a job.

This leads us to the question of what this has to do with Marxism at all. The autonomist Marxists, particularly those roosting in the academy like Holloway, Harry Cleaver, and even Toni Negri, are all serious Marxist scholars having written oceans of ink over commodity fetishism, value theory, etc. What they don’t appear to understand is the political agenda of Marxism, which is to make a socialist revolution that will lead to working class power over the economy.

To some extent, they all reflect the spirit of the 1960s New Left that was oriented to “alternative” institutions, ranging from food coops to squats. There is, of course, nothing wrong with such initiatives but to turn them into the ultimate goal of radical politics is selling us short for as long as the bourgeoisie has its fingers on the trigger, no such institutions can last very long.

I first became aware of the ideological evolution away from politics in the direction of community-based institutions when reading “Globalization and its Discontents: the rise of postmodernist socialisms” in 1997. Authors Orlando Núñez (an FSLN leader), Boris Kagarlitsky (Kargalitsky would eventually disown the book), and Roger Burbach (a scholar/activist I retain great respect for despite this book) wrote:

The left has to accept the fact that the Marxist project for revolution launched by the Communist Manifesto is dead. There will certainly be revolutions (the Irananian Revolution is probably a harbinger of what to expect in the short term), but they will not be explicitly socialist ones that follow in the Marxist tradition begun by the First International.

Instead, they lowered their horizons as Holloway has:

In both the developed and underdeveloped countries, a wide variety of critical needs and interests are being neglected at the local level, including the building, or rebuilding, of roads, schools and social services. A new spirit of volunteerism and community participation, backed by a campaign to secure complimentary resources from local and national governments, can open up entirely new job markets and areas of work to deal with these basic needs.

It must be said, however, that Holloway probably would not be the least bit interested in securing “complementary resources” from local and national governments. Who would want to be tainted by money received from the evil state apparatus?

Back in 2003, before I began blogging, I reviewed John Holloway’s “Change the World without Taking Power”.  Now would be a good time to reproduce it here:

Fetishizing the Zapatistas: a critique of “Change the World Without Taking Power”

As should be clear to even the most casual observer on the left, the Chiapas rebellion has become as much of a paradigm for the post-Marxist left as October 1917 was for an earlier generation of Marxists. The collapse of the USSR, the difficulties faced by socialist Cuba and an ostensibly brand-new way of doing politics in Chiapas put wind in the sails of ideological currents that never were committed to classical Marxism to begin with, including the autonomist and anarchist movements. In contrast to the anarchists, autonomism has positioned itself as retaining the emancipatory core of Marxism, while disposing of the dross. This is one of the central messages of John Holloway’s “To Change the World Without Taking Power”. We will assess this claim in due time, but first some background on the Zapatista left in general and how it took shape.

Although the Chiapas revolt grew out of Mayan resentment over unemployment, land hunger, racism and other injustices that face indigenous peoples everywhere in the world, it transformed itself very rapidly into a global movement that at time appeared as spokes radiating from Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop, just as an earlier generation rotated around the Kremlin.

The Zapatistas became hosts of a series of ‘encuentros’ (encounters) in Mexico and elsewhere, the first of which was held in Chiapas in August 1996, two and a half years after the start of their revolt. Some 3,000 guests from 43 different countries came together as part of an International Encounter Against Neoliberalism and for Humanity to discuss how to “change the world”.

With the armed revolt at an end, the EZLN had begun to explore nonviolent options. According to the August 5, 1996 Guardian, some high profile guests including Danielle Mitterrand (the wife of the French social democratic leader), Eduardo Galeano and Douglas Bravo were encouraged by this transition. Bravo was himself a former guerrilla fighter in Venezuela during the 1960s but became committed to a kind of “civil society” reformism that eventually led him to join the opposition to Hugo Chavez.

When asked what he expected from the gathering, Subcommandante Marcos said: “I haven’t a damn clue.” This led French intellectual Regis Debray to comment. “This is a return to the essential resistance.” Debray, like Bravo, was once part of the foquismo left in Latin America but in more recent years has become part of the French cultural establishment, serving for a time as adviser to President Mitterand whose wife shared Debray’s enthusiasms for heterodox leftisms.

These encuentros had a tremendously energizing effect on the post-Marxist left in the same way that Comintern conferences in the early 1920s had on people like John Reed. Unlike the Comintern, these gatherings adopted the discourse of the anti-globalization movement. Instead of hearing Bukharin presenting an analysis of the latest stage of imperialism, the delegations focused on ‘neoliberalism’, privatization and other symptoms of the underlying capitalist crisis. The search for solutions in Chiapas stopped short of obviously passé measures such as socialist revolution.

Even though the imagination-challenged Marxist movement tended to shy away from these gatherings, as early as the second–held in Spain in 1996–some stodgy participants were beginning to get impatient and think in terms of goals, even though this was the last thing on Subcommandante’s mind. As Gustavo Esteva writes in the collection “Auroras of the Zapatistas” (Midnight Notes, 2001), a tension arose between those “who fully enjoyed the opportunity to meet and share with others” and those who sought “a manifesto, an organization, a political platform…”

By 1998, the encuentros began to shift perceptibly toward becoming the anti-globalization movement of today (well, perhaps not post 9/11, but of a couple of years ago at least). Yale Professor David Graeber, who has become a highly visible opponent of Marxism and defender of this new way of doing politics (or rather not doing politics), claims that this movement was born in Barcelona that year:

The real origins of the movement, for example, lie in an international network called People’s Global Action (PGA). PGA emerged from a 1998 Zapatista encuentro in Barcelona, and its founding members include not only anarchist groups in Spain, Britain and Germany, but a Gandhian socialist peasant league in India, the Argentinian teachers’ union, indigenous groups such as the Maori of New Zealand and Kuna of Ecuador, the Brazilian landless peasants movement and a network made up of communities founded by escaped slaves in South and Central America.


One year later the Seattle protests erupted and the world’s attention became riveted on this new movement that apparently had its origins in Chiapas, Mexico. While some of the popularizers of this new movement put their message across in the mass media, a significant number were based in academia. At the University of Texas, Harry Cleaver synthesized autonomist Marxism and fashionable ideas about the power of the Internet in order to advance the idea that Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop represented something entirely new. He writes:

The rhizomatic pattern of collaboration has emerged as a partial solution to the failure of old organizational forms; it has –by definition– no single formula to guide the kinds of elaboration required. The power of The Net in the Zapatista struggle has lain in connection and circulation, in the way widely dispersed nodes of antagonism set themselves in motion in response to the uprising in Chiapas.

While it would be foolish to underestimate the power of the Internet, one might plausibly raise the question of whether technical-organizational dichotomies between hierarchies and networks get to the heart of the challenges facing the left. As we move into a period of deepening social and economic crisis punctuated by brutal imperialist adventures, the Internet will eventually become part of the political landscape just as the mimeograph was in years past. But technology can be no substitute for a careful assessment of the relationship of class forces on the ground and intelligent strategies and tactics based on that analysis.

A balance sheet on the progress made by the EZLN in overcoming historic injustices to the Mayan people must be made on the basis of tangible gains. It is doubtful whether the Internet can ever serve as a panacea for problems that nag away at the Mexican left, Chiapas included. While the telephone and mimeograph machine undoubtedly did a lot to empower the trade union and social movements in the USA, it was ultimately strategy and tactics that determined the outcome.

Turning now to John Holloway’s “To Change the World Without Taking Power”, we enter a terrain where such mundane matters seem to matter little. Taking Subcommandante Marcos’s refusal to specify goals or the methods necessary to achieve them as a starting point, Holloway has written a book that effectively inflates the Zapatista style of politics into a post-Marxist Communist Manifesto.

For narrow-minded technicians like myself who like to keep databases of such things, this is now the third new communist manifesto to occupy a place on my bookshelf alongside Hardt-Negri’s “Empire” (Zizek, “Nothing less than a rewriting of the Communist Manifesto for our time”) and Guattari-Negri’s “Communists Like Us” which purports modestly to “rescue ‘communism’ from its own disrepute.”

At first blush, all of these books seem driven by the need to proceed directly to something called communism without passing go. All the sordid business associated with what Bukharin called “the transition period” will somehow be leapfrogged by a monumental act of will, especially the bugbear of the autonomist movement: the state.

In chapter two (Beyond the State), Holloway argues that it doesn’t do any good for working people to create their own state: “If the state paradigm was the vehicle of hope for much of the century, it became more and more the assassin of hope as the century progressed.” Correctly observing that China and Russia failed to “promote the reign of freedom”, Holloway manages to avoid any reference to Cuba. Since Cuba defies any easy pigeonholing as a totalitarian dungeon, it tends to be swept under the rug in autonomist literature.

Holloway explains that Marxist assumptions about transforming society fail to take into account that “capitalist social relations, by their nature, have always gone beyond territorial limitations”. So, it becomes an exercise in futility to smash the capitalist state and replace it with a workers state of the kind conceived by Lenin in “State and Revolution” for to do so would simply re-introduce oppressive power relations, especially those refracted through a nominally socialist society’s ties to the outside capitalist world. Or, as the Who once put it in “Won’t Get Fooled Again”:

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

Holloway expresses the same sentiments in a more polished manner: “You cannot build a society of non-power relations by conquering power. Once the logic of power is adopted, the struggle against power is already lost.”

Far be it for me to even suggest that something as passé as Marxist dialectics can still have some value, it would appear to me that speaking in terms of power versus non-power cedes too much to formal logic. While it is true that a woman cannot be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time, certain social phenomena have contradictory aspects. For example, when Father Gapon organized a demonstration to present a petition to the Czar, some 200,000 St Petersburg workers marched behind him with pictures of the Tsar, religious icons and church banners. Instead of dismissing this as a genuflection before Czarism, Trotsky saw the other side of the process: “Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St Petersburg, he merely released it and events completely overtook him.”

Oddly enough, despite a tendency toward cryptic formulations, Subcommandante Marcos himself can be quite specific on the value of power:

When we governed, we lowered to zero the rate of alcoholism, and the women here became very fierce and they said that drink only served to make the men beat their women and children, and to act barbarically, and therefore they gave the order that no drink was allowed, and that we could not allow drinking to go on, and the people who received the most benefit were the children and women, and the ones most damaged were the businessmen and the government…

The destruction of trees also was prohibited, and laws were made to protect the forests, and the hunting of wild animals was prohibited, even if they were from the government, and the cultivation, consumption and trafficking in drugs were prohibited, and these laws were upheld. The infant death rate went way down, and became very small, just like the children are. And the Zapatista laws were applied uniformly, without regard for social position or income level. And we made all of the major decisions, or the ‘strategic’ ones, of our struggle, by means of a method that they call the ‘referendum’ and the ‘plebiscite’. And we got rid of prostitution and unemployment disappeared as well as begging. The children had sweets and toys. And we made many errors and had many failures. And we also accomplished what no other government in the world, regardless of its political affiliation, is capable of doing honestly, and that is to recognize its errors and to take steps to remedy them.


In a certain sense, attempts to seize power and transform all of society along the lines described by the Subcommandante are doomed to failure unless humanity overcomes something called “fetishization” which functions in Holloway’s schema as a kind of tragic flaw, like Oedipus’s pride or Dr. Frankenstein’s mad desire to create life from the parts of dead bodies.

As most people are probably aware, fetish is a term that has its origins in anthropology. It is a charm or amulet that has magical powers for so-called primitive peoples. It is etymologically related to the word factitious, which means artificial. Freud and other experts on abnormal psychology have used the word to describe sexual attachments to objects like shoes and other garments. For example, according to the tell-all memoir of his mistress, President Salinas of Mexico had an Imelda Marcos-like fetish for charro suits, the silver-buckled outfits and matching sombrero, boots and spurs worn by mariachi singers. She reported that over 70 were hidden away in his closet.

Holloway uses the term in its Marxist sense, which he describes as a “central category” in Capital even though “it is almost completely ignored by those who regard themselves as Marxist economists”. As understood by Marx and by Holloway as well, it is tied up with alienation, especially that between the worker and the commodity he or she produces. He sees fetishization as the main target for those who would change the world: “Any thought or practice which aims at the emancipation of humanity from the dehumanization of capitalism is necessarily directed against fetishism.” But Holloway takes Marx one step further. It is not simply the separation between worker and commodity; it is also by extension the separation between doing and done, and between subject and object. Thus, what begins as an attempt grounded in political economy to elucidate how capitalism appears to the ruled as a permanent system shades off into a kind of philosophical critique of Cartesian dualism:

Constitution and existence are sundered. The constituted denies the constituting, the done the doing, the object the subject. The object constituted acquires a durable identity. It becomes an apparently autonomous structure. This sundering (both real and apparent) is crucial to the stability of capitalism. The statement that ‘that’s the way things are’ presupposes that separation. The separation of constitution and existence is the closure of radical alternatives.

Leaving aside the question of how to translate this sort of thing into a punchy leaflet that will grab the attention of the average worker, it does not really convey what Marx was all about in philosophical terms. As a materialist, Marx saw human beings as part of the physical universe: “The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.” (German Ideology)

Within this context, ideas arise from social relationships: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour.” (German Ideology)

While expressed in somewhat different terms than Holloway’s heterodox views on “fetishization”, the notion ideas arising from material conditions conveys much more accurately Marx’s understanding of the relationship between humanity, ideology and class society. Historical and material conditions govern the way we think. In order to become free human beings unconstrained by bourgeois ideology, it is necessary to abolish commodity production, which is the substratum of bourgeois society. Struggles against “fetishism” are rather futile as long as commodity production is generalized throughout society.

For Marx, the only way to overcome alienation (and fetishism, by implication) is to change material conditions:

This ‘alienation’ (to use a term which will be comprehensible to the philosophers) can, of course, only be abolished given two practical premises. For it to become an ‘intolerable’ power, i.e. a power against which men make a revolution, it must necessarily have rendered the great mass of humanity ‘propertyless’, and produced, at the same time, the contradiction of an existing world of wealth and culture, both of which conditions presuppose a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced; and furthermore, because only with this universal development of productive forces is a universal intercourse between men established, which produces in all nations simultaneously the phenomenon of the ‘propertyless’ mass (universal competition), makes each nation dependent on the revolutions of the others, and finally has put world-historical, empirically universal individuals in place of local ones. (German Ideology)

This is the reason that Marxists have historically targeted the state. In order to achieve a classless society, it is necessary to develop the productive forces to such a high degree that competition for goods becomes more and more unnecessary. As leisure time and the general level of culture increases, human beings will enjoy a level of freedom that has never been attainable in class society.

For a variety of reasons, socialist revolutions have occurred in backward countries where the development of productive forces has been hampered by a number of factors, including imperialist blockade, technological and industrial underdevelopment, low productivity of labor and the need to stave off invasions and subversion–in other words, the kinds of conditions that make a country like Cuba fall short of communist ideals. Notwithstanding Cuba’s difficulties, the revolution has made a significant impact on peoples’ lives, so much so that it earned the praise of James Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, in May of 2001: “Cuba has done a great job on education and health and if you judge the country by education and health they’ve done a terrific job.”

Wolfensohn was simply recognizing the reality of statistics in the bank’s World Development Indicators report that showed Cubans living longer than other Latin Americans, including residents of the US Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Literacy levels were on a par with Uruguay, while the life expectancy rate was 76 years, second only to Costa Rica at 77. Infant mortality in Cuba was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, much lower than the rest of Latin America.

While it is true that Cuba is enmeshed in a myriad of ways within the world capitalist economy, it did withdrew from the World Bank and its sister lending agency, the International Monetary Fund, in 1959. Despite the collapse of the USSR and continuing efforts to destroy the country economically by the USA, Cuba continues to develop its productive capabilities and raise the cultural level of the people.

Turning to Chiapas, the general picture is far less encouraging. In a February 3, 2003 Newsday article titled “Infant Deaths Plague Mexico”, we learn that the Comitan hospital serves nearly 500,000 people in Chiapas. Burdened by inadequate staffing and supplies, babies die at twice the national rate. Meanwhile, the February 21, 2001 Financial Times reported on a study conducted by the Association for the Health of Indigenous Children in Mexico in the village of Las Canadas, Chiapas. It found that not one girl had adequate nutritional levels compared with 39.4 per cent of boys. Female malnutrition has actually led to physical shrinking over the last decade from an average height of 1.42 meters to 1.32 meters. At the same time, more than half of women who speak an indigenous language are illiterate – five times the national average.

While nobody can blame the EZLN for failing to make a revolution in Mexico, we would be remiss if we did not point out the obvious material differences between the two societies, especially in the countryside where poverty has traditionally been extreme. With its abundant natural resources, including oil and fertile farmland, it is not too difficult to imagine how much of a difference a socialist Mexico would have made in the lives of the poor.

For John Holloway, access to decent medical care seems far less important than “visibility”, a term that he sees as practically defining Zapatismo and presumably missing altogether in dreary Cuban state socialism. This is expressed through the balaclava, the mask that Subcommandante wore at press conferences and which has since been appropriated by Black Block activists breaking Starbucks windows in the name of anti-capitalism: “The struggle for visibility is also central to the current indigenous movement, expressed most forcefully in the Zapatista wearing of the balaclava: we cover our face so that we can be seen, our struggle is the struggle of those without face.”

While every movement certainly needs an element of mystique, it is doubtful that the Zapatista movement could sustain itself over the long haul using such symbols. Nor is it likely that it could succeed without linking up to a dynamic, rising mass movement in the rest of Mexico. Localized peasant struggles have a long history in Mexico going back to the 19th century. If you strip away the balaclava and Subcommandante Marcos’s laptop, you will find all the elements that ultimately frustrated the efforts of the original Zapata, namely the failure of a regional uprising to become part of a general assault on state power and the social and economic transformation of society.

To fetishize these sorts of incomplete and partial rebellions as a new way of doing politics not only does a disservice to the valiant efforts of the Mayan people, it also creates obstacles to those of us who also want to change the world but on a more favorable basis. For in the final analysis, it requires a democratic and centralized movement of the working class and its allies to take power in a country like Mexico.

February 18, 2012

The black bloc, jihadism, and Counterpunch

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,black bloc idiots,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Anybody who reads Counterpunch on a regular basis as I do (I also donated $50 to a recent fund-drive and subscribe to the electronic version of the newsletter—so I do understand its value) must be aware of its two highest priority talking points of late:

1. Al-Qaeda type jihadists are a terrible danger to al-Assad’s Syria and good enough reason to back the dictator. For example, Peter Lee wrote an article in this weekend’s edition:

More worryingly, al-Qaeda’s enthusiastic attempt to piggyback on the spiraling unrest in Syria—and the car bombings in Aleppo which, if not the work of Zawahiri’s minions, can probably be traced back to al-Qaeda’s Gulf-funded Sunni Islamist fans in western Iraq—are a warning that backing the feckless SNC in an agenda of regime collapse is not going to be the carefree, Iran-bashing romp so many interventionists are advertising.

2. Chris Hedges’s attack on the black bloc is an ominous threat against radical politics in the U.S. and every effort must be mounted to defend the vandalistas, either critically or uncritically. One of the prime examples is an article that appeared in the February 9th edition by Peter Gelderloos, the author of the aptly named “How Nonviolence Protects the State”. In the article, titled “The Surgeons of Occupy”, Gelderloos draws an unfortunate amalgam between the black bloc and the anarchist movement as a whole: “But beneath the black masks, anarchists have been an integral part of the debates, the organizing, the cooking and cleaning in dozens of cities.” So, in effect, when Hedges attacks vandalism, he is also attacking cooking and cleaning—I suppose. I say suppose because Gelderloos, like many black bloc aficionados, is skilled at demagogy. Or more accurately, uses demagogy rather ineffectively to avoid a serious debate.

I had no idea who Gelderloos was, but was intrigued to discover in the midst of a spittle-flecked attack on me by a Kasama Project commenter (I am a “Pseudo-Trotskyist renegade… practicing revisionist right-deviationism”) that “Gelderloos makes statements of support for the mass-murder of Spanish civilians by the right-wing Muslim group Al-Qaeda” in “How Nonviolence Protects the State”.

Wow, how about that!

As it turns out, there is a pdf version of the book. Wasting no time, I tracked down the passage in question and converted into regular text:

A good case study regarding the efficacy of nonviolent protest can be seen in Spain’s involvement with the US-led occupation. Spain, with 1,300 troops, was one of the larger junior partners in the “Coalition of the Willing.” More than one million Spaniards pro-tested the invasion, and 80 percent of the Spanish population was opposed to it, but their commitment to peace ended there—they did nothing to actually prevent Spanish military support for the invasion and occupation. Because they remained passive and did nothing to disempower the leadership, they remained as powerless as the citizens of any democracy. Not only was Spanish Prime Minister Aznar able and allowed to go to war, he was expected by all forecasts to win reelection—until the bombings. On March 11, 2004, just days before the voting booths opened, multiple bombs planted by an Al-Qaida-linked cell exploded in Madrid train stations, killing 191 people and injuring thousands more. Directly because of this, Aznar and his party lost in the polls, and the Socialists, the major party with an anti-war platform, were elected into power. The US-led coalition shrunk with the loss of 1,300 Spanish troops, and promptly shrunk again after the Dominican Republic and Honduras also pulled out their troops. Whereas millions of peaceful activists voting in the streets like good sheep have not weakened the brutal occupation in any measurable way, a few dozen terrorists willing to slaughter noncombatants were able to cause the withdrawal of more than a thousand occupation troops.

So nonviolence lacks “efficacy” but killing 191 Spaniards in train stations does not. A while back, I made a big deal about a book on Infoshop.org making the case that the black bloc is following in the steps of the Weathermen but this reaches level of insanity that simply takes my breath away.

What can we say about this? Can we make a connection between the black bloc and jihadism? Probably not. But I would say this. Alexander Cockburn would be well-advised to exercise a bit more editorial scrutiny in the future. I know that it gets hard when you hit 71 to stay on top of details but I am quite sure that there would be any number of interns out there who would be willing to give him a hand, if for no other reason to spare a once very admired journalist from allowing his website to embarrass itself further.

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