Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 30, 2012

5 Broken Cameras; UN Me

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:47 pm

If I had to pick the essential documentary about the Palestinian struggle among the six very strong ones I’ve seen, the honors would go to “5 Broken Cameras” that opens today at the Film Forum in New York. It is exactly the sort of message that is helping to change peoples’ minds about the Middle East and deserves the widest audience.

The film derives its title from the 5 video cameras that co-director Emad Burnat has used over the years to document the struggle of his fellow villagers in Bil’in, one of the most combative in the West Bank, against Zionist settlers. Tear gas pellets or bullets that Israeli soldiers fired indiscriminately into crowds of protestors damaged most of the cameras. None of this, nor frequent house arrest, has dissuaded Burnat from soldiering on.

Burnat has an instinctive feel for cinematic transcendence, something that life under occupation rather than film school workshops can only make possible. His first camcorder was a simple affair of the kind that you take on a vacation and that he purchased to photograph his four children who are major subjects in the film, along with his wife Soraya. Under normal conditions, that is what a camcorder is used for, after all. But when ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers arrived at a state-sponsored high-rise in Bil’in, his fellow villagers relied on his film documentation of the abuses associated with occupation.

The abuses are enough to get anybody to consider the rightness of the BDS cause. The Hasidim’s brutality and arrogance will remind you of nothing else but newsreels of the Gestapo pushing around Jews in the 1930. When you see an “observant” Jew punching a nonviolent Palestinian protestor in the face, you wish for a latter-day Jeremiah to tell them “how then art thou turned into the degenerate plant of a strange vine.”

The Israeli soldiers are just as bad. They stand impassively on the road protecting the settlers, heavily armed and utterly lacking in humanity. Some of the more poignant scenes in “5 Broken Cameras” involve the Palestinian protestors getting in the soldiers’ faces and demanding that they act like human beings.

Bil’in is a small farming village whose main crop is the olive tree. One of the most horrifying scenes in the documentary shows the charred olive trees that were left by a settler arson attack in the middle of the night. As a powerful contrast, you see Burnat’s youngest son presenting an Israeli soldier with an olive branch. He takes it without any apparent recognition of his own violation of what the branch symbolizes through his daily actions.

Not every Israeli is a thug. We meet a good number who have come to Bil’in in solidarity, including one older man who bestows a fairly professional looking camera on Burnat. At one point, the Israeli is shot in the face by a tear gas pellet just barely missing an eye. We also see many internationalists who have rallied around the cause of Palestine just as an earlier generation rallied around the Spanish Republic.

One of the more noteworthy Israelis standing on the side of humanity is Burnat’s co-director Guy Davidi, who was an activist with Indymedia. His first documentary was “Interrupted Streams” that dealt with the Zionist theft of Palestinian water just as the latest deals with land theft.

Throughout the film, you hear Emad Burnat’s voice as he speaks eloquently about his tribulations and his hopes. Like other Palestinians, there is a note of weariness and fatalism as they see the Zionist juggernaut in action but notwithstanding that they always find a way to demonstrate their opposition to it. Perhaps no other people on earth symbolize Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” more graphically than the villagers of Bil’in.

In the press kit from Kino Lorber, there’s a section that deals with the 5 cameras of the title. Here’s the story on the third, something that should give you a feel for the intense nature of this year’s most compelling documentary by far:

Gibreel is now three years old, and Emad takes his kid to see the demonstrations by himself – with a third camera on his shoulders. On that day, Gibreel saw his neighbors being arrested, including one of Emad’s brothers – as the soldiers were entering more and more into the village and began taking people from their houses.

After that, soldiers entered into the village and arrested children from their homes – for throwing rocks in the demonstrations. In the morning, the kids went to demonstrate together. They cried: “We want to sleep”. But the violence continues and an Israeli activist was hurt by a bullet in the head. In his house, the kids speak about brochures the army distributed to warn people not to go and demonstrate. Soraya then had to explain to them that they had to continue resisting. And the soldiers continued to look for children to arrest.

One night, they came into Emad’s house while he was filming. Emad was taken to the police, and then, kept in jail and house arrest. In a house far from Bil’in, Emad was locked alone, accused of throwing rocks but actually punished for filming. At the end, the army dropped all charges, as they claimed lack of evidence. When he is out, Emad went directly to filming, and his third camera was again, shot at and hit. The bullet, still inside the camera, is a proof to life’s fragility.

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, I suppose I should say a few words about the truly rancid “U.N. ME”, a title that is supposed to sound like “You and Me”, a sample of director Ami Horowitz’s lame sense of humor.

I had a feeling that this would be a rightwing screed but watched it out of curiosity. I had never seen a conservative documentary before and wondered if it would be half as amusing as a few minutes of Rush Limbaugh or the like. I don’t mind rightwing crapola in small doses, just as a way of reminding me how far off a revolution in the USA is.

Horowitz used to be an investment banker—no surprise there. The film is a diatribe against the U.N. utilizing all the expected talking points about how it is a “den of iniquity”, to use Lenin’s description of the League of Nations, but its iniquity is based on a mixture of self-seeking corruption of the kind that only a professional diplomat is capable of and coddling of terrorists and Islamic governments, Iran’s especially.

Horowitz, a truly off-putting character, has appropriated Michael Moore’s shtick wandering around the U.N. or the offices of various diplomats looking for a chance to make them look foolish. Instead, it is he who looks stupid.

While I have little use for the government of Sudan, there is one scene that encapsulates the dimwittedness of the director. He asks a government spokesman why there was so much killing in the south. When the man starts off by putting it into context by referring to global warming, the jackass director tries to make a joke about the whole thing, asking whether peace in Darfur will come if we all start driving Priuses.

One can’t imagine Ami Horowitz ever reading anything but the NY Post, but if he took the trouble, he could have learned that the Sudanese official was not far off from the truth:

The fighting in Darfur is usually described as racially motivated, pitting mounted Arabs against black rebels and civilians. But the fault lines have their origins in another distinction, between settled farmers and nomadic herders fighting over failing lands. The aggression of the warlord Musa Hilal can be traced to the fears of his father, and to how climate change shattered a way of life.

Until the rains began to fail, the sheikh’s people lived amicably with the settled farmers. The nomads were welcome passers-through, grazing their camels on the rocky hillsides that separated the fertile plots. The farmers would share their wells, and the herders would feed their stock on the leavings from the harvest. But with the drought, the farmers began to fence off their land—even fallow land—for fear it would be ruined by passing herds. A few tribes drifted elsewhere or took up farming, but the Arab herders stuck to their fraying livelihoods—nomadic herding was central to their cultural identity. (The distinction between “Arab” and “African” in Darfur is defined more by lifestyle than any physical difference: Arabs are generally herders, Africans typically farmers. The two groups are not racially distinct.)

Now, that would be a good topic for a documentary, how the violence in Darfur really got started. For that you need a brain, like the directors of “5 Broken Cameras” have, as opposed to the cabbage between Ami Horowitz’s ears.

Syriza’s program

Filed under: Greece — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm


President Strangelove

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 2:20 pm

May 28, 2012

I left my heart in San Francisco

Filed under: San Francisco — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

I just returned from a 4-day stay in San Francisco. My wife was giving a paper on Argentine banking to the Latin American Studies Association conference there and I had tagged along.

This was the first time I had been in San Francisco as a tourist and brought along a Frommer’s guide just to make sure we hit the highlights on her free days. My first time in San Francisco was in the summer of 1965, just after I had graduated from Bard College. I had driven out there with another graduate, a guy named Rick Smith who became a professional blues harmonica player. Since this was before the days of the Interstate, we took Route 66, a road that inspired the television show about two “beatniks” driving around in a Corvette looking for adventure.

Would you get hip to this kindly tip
And go take that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66

I had plans of living the good bohemian life out in San Francisco but the war in Vietnam put a damper on my plans. After three weeks of reading daily reports in the San Francisco Chronicle about troop build-ups, I decided to walk to San Francisco State to pick up an application for the fall term and the student deferment that went along with it. On a map, there was only about 30 blocks separating the place I was staying on Russian Hill and the campus. I had no way of knowing that the steep hills made it the equivalent of 100 Manhattan blocks. The one thing that sticks with me to this day were the miniature but magnificent gardens that homeowners kept. The flowers were like none that I had ever seen before, native to places like the Pacific coast or Hawaii I suspected. It was nearly enough to get my mind off my wartime anxieties.

I returned to the Bay Area a few times in the 1980s to meet with Michael Urmann, the executive director of Tecnica, and with Peter Camejo. Peter loved California and the Bay Area in particular. He was always anxious to show off its scenery as we discussed politics. This page from my memoir (publication date, Jan. 21, 2065) captures the experience.

On Thursday we went off on a one-day tour recommended by Frommer’s, starting with Union Square. Unlike NY, the name refers to the Unionist side in the Civil War rather than trade unions. According to the guidebook, the square was the site of passionate abolitionist speeches given by Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian minister.

Thomas Starr King

New York, on the other hand, was where Irish workers rioted against being drafted on behalf of the same cause. I saw nothing in Union Square that commemorated this aspect of the city’s glorious progressive past, only a monument to Admiral Dewey’s imperialist adventures in the Spanish-American War.

“War has commenced between the United States and Spain”

Here, by way of contrast, is an abolitionist rally addressed by Reverend King not far from Union Square:

Afterwards we took the cable car on Powell up to the Fisherman’s Wharf, something equivalent to going to the observation tower on the Empire State Building. My advice to people going to San Francisco is to only take this trip very early in the morning. We got stuck with a trolley full of bawling infants, obviously traumatized by the clatter of the wheels on the tracks, the clanging bell, etc. We had to resist bolting from the car and going the rest of the way on foot. Here I am, up in the hills above Fisherman’s Wharf, probably not far from the place I crashed at nearly 50 years ago.

We went off on another tour on Saturday, taking in the Castro, the gay capital of the world where Harvey Milk lived, and the adjacent Mission District where Latinos lived.

As we strolled along Castro Street, my wife felt like exploring the inside of Worn Out West, a used clothing store featuring leather jackets, cowboy boots and the like. We were both rather surprised to see that the clerk was completely naked except for a loincloth of some sort that the tip of his penis extended beneath by a good 2 inches or so. All the while, the heavily muscled man was lifting what looked like 30-pound dumbbells.  As New Yorkers, we took it all in stride. Frankly, I was happy to see a display of sexual transgression in a period where so much of the Gay population seems so bent on being accepted.

Worn Out West

Apparently, that trend has even opened up divisions within the Castro itself as the San Francisco Weekly reported on December 1, 2010:

In Chinatown, it may be the Year of the Tiger, but in the Castro, it’s almost always the Year of the Cock. Judging from a walk down Castro Street, cocks are the unofficial mascot. You’ve got the Sausage Factory (an Italian restaurant named with a wink), Hot Cookie (a bakery that sells chocolate-covered cookie cocks), and Rock Hard (a porn shop full of gigantic, X-rated cocks). To cap it off, the Castro just elected a supervisor named Scott Wiener.

But this year, the neighborhood found out that the male anatomy can still cause a stir when the real-life cocks arrived. In broad daylight. At the plaza on the corner of Market Street, right by the F-line trolley stop. Sometimes flapping down Castro Street. Or hanging out in line for coffee at Starbucks.

The Castro is, of course, no stranger to exhibitionism. Back in the heady ’70s and ’80s when gay men claimed the neighborhood formerly known as Eureka Valley as their own, guys stood with shirts off and tight Levis sanded at the crotch on “Hibernia Beach,” the sidewalk outside the old Hibernia Bank at 18th and Castro streets.

But in 2010, those guys have grown up, settled down, and had babies. Locals have noticed more lesbians and straight couples have moved into the neighborhood with babies of their own. The Castro has gone from edgy to twee and touristy. Strollers have rolled in like an invading army.

One day this summer, Glenn Castro, a gym teacher from the nearby Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy (one of two elementary schools within two blocks of the plaza), approached the trolley stop with 30 day campers. Suddenly, a field trip to Pier 39 seemed a lot less interesting to the schoolkids than a group of naked grownups in the plaza.

One of the campers was the 7-year-old daughter of Terry Bennett, who runs Cliff’s Variety hardware shop on Castro, opened by her great-great-grandfather more than 70 years ago. Later that day, Bennett called the city’s service line to report the naked men walking down the sidewalk.

“I don’t know why they’re doing it — shock value or what?” she says from behind her counter at Cliff’s recently. “The Castro’s a place that’s supposed to be for everybody, and if you’re excluding the kids, that’s not being accepting of everyone.”

The Castro, as well as the gay community for whom it is both the literal and symbolic home, is changing. Whereas the fight used to be to come out, today’s battles are to fit in — to join the military, get married, and win benefits for your partner — in short, to make the gay community just as normal as the straight folks down the street. So when men start dangling out the bits on a Tuesday afternoon in what is essentially the Castro’s front yard, well, the neighbors start to talk.

The Mission District is home to some magnificent mural art that took up the issues of the Latino population, including the battles of the 1980s for democracy and social justice in Central America as this:

On Friday, when my wife was over at the LASA conference, I had lunch with Paul Mueller, a guy who graduated a year ahead of me from Bard College. I can make no stronger recommendation than to check out Paul’s comments on my blog. The best way to do this is to do an advanced Google search on “Paul Mueller” with the domain “louisproyect.wordpress.com”. This is the sort of thing that will turn up:

I started at Bard in ‘61, the same as you. I was a student of Heinrich Blucher–I wrote my senior paper on Heidigger. Today I would describe myself as a socialist in much the same way as you do. We are probably the only two people in the world who have given thought to Bluchers’ influence on our socialist politics. I am glad to find I am not alone.

Bard was not “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson” in the early ‘sixties. Of course my girlfriend was a Red and lots of the girls, including my sister, were whores, but our political crowd was small compared to your arty crowd. For me the Bard years were political times. I had joined the YPSL in ‘62, and I attended the first anti Vietnam March in Washington in ‘62 and the ‘63 Civil Rights March with groups from Bard. And in ‘64 when I ran the speaker program I brought up several former Trotskyists (Max Shachtman, Dwight McDonald) as well as Mark Lane from the National Guardian.

I left Bard for Madison Wisconsin in ‘64. I was a grad student in sociology, but mostly I was a activist caught up in new left politics. With my YPSL comrade, and allied with various anarchists and the SWP crowd, we battled the dominant CP nonsense such as the ”Ad Hoc Committee against Extremism” that worked to elect Lyndon Johnson. In ‘68 when several of my friends were run out of town after the Dow riots, and with the draft after me, I headed back to the Hudson to teach sociology at New Paltz. I went back to Bard hoping to talk to Blucher about my political experiences but he and everyone else was gone.

Paul recounted the same narrative over lunch at a very nice French restaurant near Union Square, but interjected some memorable new material. I especially got a kick out his dinner with Max Shachtman who was regaling his young comrades at Bard (all 3 of them?) with stories about the good old days of American Communism when he was trying to decide whether to hook up with the Communist Party or the Communist Labor Party. (Read Theodore Draper on this stuff, or even better watch Warren Beatty’s “Reds”). He said the key question was whether to support “mass action” or “action of the masses”. When the comrades asked him which line was correct, Shachtman slammed the table and said “action of the masses, of course.”

Speaking to Paul reminded me of how glad I am to have thrown in my lot with America’s radicals. While it won’t bring you fame or fortune, it certainly puts you in touch with some of the most interesting people you will find anywhere.

Back in 1962, when Paul was organizing meetings for Max Shachtman or Dwight MacDonald, I was smoking pot and trying to make sense out of Plotinus and Zen koans. I guess there was nothing wrong with that at the time, but I am glad that I worked it out of my system with the war in Vietnam helping me along.

Unfortunately I did not get a chance to meet with Hari Dillon later that day since he had come down with food poisoning. You may remember my write-up  on Hari from a while back, when I recounted his legal and political problems as executive director of the Vanguard Foundation that was forced to close shop after an Israeli con artist suckered Hari and Danny Glover into putting the foundation’s assets into a scam investment.

I did manage to speak on the phone with Hari for about a half-hour or so and learned that the conman had been sentenced. He also sent me links to a couple of recent articles on the scandal. What a sleazeball Cohen was. The Breyer referred to in this article, by the way, is the brother of the Supreme Court Justice:

A former high-tech executive convicted of defrauding investors of at least $30 million was sentenced Monday to 22 years in prison after a judge denounced him for fleecing nearly 100 victims to finance an “obscene lifestyle” of private jets, gaudy jewelry and Swiss bank accounts.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said Samuel “Mouli” Cohen was “nearly sociopathic” for refusing to show remorse for actor Danny Glover and others who suffered after he told them a company Cohen launched called Ecast that made electronic jukeboxes for bars was about to be acquired by Microsoft Corp.

Cohen rented a $50,000-a-month mansion in the wealthy enclave of Belvedere just north of San Francisco, and decorated the house with copies of famous paintings by Picasso, Miro, Matisse and other noted artists.

Prosecutors said he solicited investments during parties at his house, which he told victims he owned while showing them the artwork he claimed were originals. Prosecutors said that was all part of a ruse to portray himself as a wealthy and savvy businessman.

Prosecutors produced receipts, credit card records and other evidence at the trial that showed Cohen spent $6 million on private jets, $1.4 million on a diamond ring, $372,000 on a Rolls Royce and $260,000 on an Aston Martin.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I’ll never understand why you commit crimes to lead this kind of life-style. For that matter, why you would hurt other people through “legal” means to achieve the same ends, like closing down a factory or polluting a river with carcinogenic chemicals sanctioned by a toothless EPA.

Back in 1961, when I started Bard, I was on some kind of spiritual quest. The image of an ascetic Zen monk had the same kind of appeal that socialism had for Paul Mueller. There is something that still intrigues me about the religious mystic, even though that route is effectively closed off to me. Whatever it was in the 60s and 70s that turned people off to war and senseless materialism of the sort epitomized by Mouli Cohen never really disappeared. It just went into a state of deep hibernation. Now that a financial crisis in its 4th year is showing signs of its intractability, there is every hope that a new generation of cultural and political rebels will take their stand, connecting not only to my generation but also to the one that took its stand in San Francisco’s Union Square 150 years ago.

May 22, 2012


Filed under: Film,psychology — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

From time to time I get complaints on my blog or on the Marxism list about my movie reviews that are supposed to be some kind of diversion from the really important topics like the declining rate of profit or torture in Bahrain, etc. In my own defense, as if any were needed, I write about popular culture because I am a student of CLR James who was not above writing a book on cricket. And there’s also Ernest Mandel, who wrote a book on spy novels. Plus, who wants to stay limited to the nitty-gritty of the class struggle? There’s more to life than that.

That being said, it is not like I am writing reviews of the latest Adam Sandler movie. Indeed, despite being hairshirt sectarians, the World Socialist website is not above reviewing something like “Titanic”, even though David Walsh dismissed it as “a bad piece of work—poorly scripted, poorly acted, poorly directed.” One thing I’ve learned after having written over 600 reviews in the past 20 years or so, there’s no need for me to weigh in on something like “Titanic”. Life is too short and I’d rather just ignore the “poorly scripted” and focus on offbeat, worthy material that I think lefties would get something out of.

That should suffice as an introduction to “OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie”, a documentary that opens on May 25th at the Village East. OC87 refers to the mental state of Bradford “Bud” Clayman, the subject of the film and one of its directors:

The title OC87 refers to a state I was in in 1987 when I tried to control my whole world. I literally tried to be independent of everyone and everything around me. If someone would go to make small talk with me, I would remain silent. If someone would try to help me, I would refuse that help. This film is my coming out party, so to say. It is a rebirth for me which I think everybody should have. It is a letting go of the shackles and demons that have haunted me most of my life. It is my personal liberation.

The OC stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the “shackles and demons” that Clayman sought to overcome by working with a group of dedicated professionals to tell his story. OC does not cover all the bases, however. As indicated in the film’s title, Clayman also suffered from depression, bipolar, and Asperger’s, a Job-like assortment of ailments that kept him confined to a group home for 8 years. While the film is inspirational to the degree that it shows Clayman coming out of his shell, there is little expectation of a happy ending. Instead, the prevailing sentiment of all concerned, especially Clayman, is that life will remain a struggle—something to be expected given the brain chemistry that fate dealt him.

“OC87” follows Clayman around as he meets with medical experts, old friends and with fellow OC sufferers. When he is by himself, he talks into the camera about all the trials that daily life imposes, mostly trying to not give in to his symptoms. While the popular perception of OC–known to many through Martin Scorsese’s biopic about Howard Hughes, a Larry David episode or the detective series Monk—mostly consists of frequent hand-washing and the like, the variety that Clayman suffers from is far more insidious, as the press notes indicate:

Through video diaries, Bud reveals eye-opening glimpses of his inner world, including OC87, an altered state of mind named by Bud and his therapist. “My mind becomes filled with intrusive thoughts that over-analyze every action and idea,” he says. “As my awareness becomes dominated by themes of control and mental commands, OC87 causes me to lose touch with not only my feelings, but also social connection.” It also gets in the way of ordinary living: riding a bus, getting in an elevator, unclogging a drain. As a long standing struggle, OC87 is embedded in Bud’s pent-up confrontation of a former mentor—a moment that‘s been brewing for thirty years.

Clayman’s interaction with others suffering from mental illnesses is filled with both his and his acquaintances good sense of humor. Despite the burden imposed on them, they make the best of their lives, including a psychiatrist who had Schizophrenia (Dan Fisher, MD-PhD), a television daytime drama star with Bipolar Disorder (Maurice Benard, General Hospital), and a radio news anchor with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Jeff Bell).

Despite the obvious focus on getting through life with a major mental illness, “OC87” is also about the redemptive power of art, specifically film. From an early age, Bradford Clayman was passionate about television and movies, enough so that this became his major at Temple University. After graduating, he moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a scriptwriter or editor, an attempt that was hobbled by his disability. Finally now, after a quarter-century, he has arrived as a documentary director. One hopes that with his success, he will be able to move on to other projects.

Returning to the question posed at the beginning of this review, I would say that I review films like OC87 for the same reason I have been involved with radical politics for 45 years. It is my way of connecting to interesting people whose values I share. While I have never had any interest in getting to know the directors of the garbage now playing at my neighborhood Cineplex, I am delighted to have found out about someone like Glenn Holsten, one of “OC87”’s directing team. In the press notes, he had this to say:

How have I changed? I have a deeper understanding of and sensitivity to the perhaps hellish journeys that fellow travelers in life may be experiencing in the most common of places—buses, elevators, diners. I have a heightened sensitivity to people I pass on the street who might not be able to look me in the eye when I greet them. I don’t assume to understand how someone receives a message, until they tell me. I have a greater appreciation for my own ability to navigate different social situations. And, as Buddy says in the film, I live with the risk. Working on the film has reminded me of how delicate life is.

Well said.

May 21, 2012

Why do nations fail? Hint: it starts with ‘Col’ and ends with ‘ism’

Filed under: imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm


Daron Acemoglu


James A. Robinson

In the latest NY Review of Books, there’s a lengthy and somewhat critical review by Jared Diamond of Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson’s “Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty.” Diamond is a natural choice for reviewer since his most famous book “Guns, Germs and Steel” addresses the same question, albeit with all the wrong answers. The authors of the reviewed book and Diamond do have one thing very much in common; they all discount the role of colonialism. For Acemoglu and Robinson, the main problem is the lack of “good institutions”, while for Diamond environment is key. That being said, there is a certain overlap in their work that the more upbeat passages in Diamond’s review reflects.

“Why Nations Fail” is very much preoccupied with the sort of side-by-side comparisons you see in television commercials, with one soft drink or antacid being weighed against the other.

The fence that divides the city of Nogales is part of a natural experiment in organizing human societies. North of the fence lies the American city of Nogales, Arizona; south of it lies the Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora. On the American side, average income and life expectancy are higher, crime and corruption are lower, health and roads are better, and elections are more democratic. Yet the geographic environment is identical on both sides of the fence, and the ethnic makeup of the human population is similar. The reasons for those differences between the two Nogaleses are the differences between the current political and economic institutions of the US and Mexico.

Yes, it is true that Arizona has “better” institutions than Mexico, but in comparison to Vermont or California, Arizona is positively medieval. The cops in Arizona are charged with terrorizing anybody with Latino features and the public schools are rapidly becoming havens of bigotry and superstition. In 2010, Arizona was the second poorest nation in the USA, next to Mississippi. For that matter, Nogales, Arizona is hardly a convincing advertisement for brand A considering the fact that one out of three families live in poverty. Perhaps a better area for investigation would be “Why Workers Fail” but one could hardly expect someone like Daron Acemoglu or James A. Robinson to bother with something as obviously grounded in class like that.

As to be expected, the authors also point to North and South Korea and East and West Germany as confirming their thesis. As grist for the anti-Communist mill, this is what you would naturally expect. However, a more interesting comparison would have been with Cuba and some other Caribbean island, maybe like Haiti. While Cuba obviously suffers from the economic effects of the collapse of the USSR and continued American enmity, it has been able to overcome its difficult circumstances and earn this praise from James Wolfensohn, the former head of the World Bank:

I think Cuba has done — and everybody would acknowledge — a great job on education and health, I have no hesitation in acknowledging that they’ve done a good job, and it doesn’t embarrass me to do it. …We just have nothing to do with them in the present sense, and they should be congratulated on what they’ve done.

One of the more telling flaws in “Why Nations Fail” is its inclusion of Britain as a poster child for “good institutions” and Argentina as its evil twin. Britain “adopted inclusive institutions, we are told, as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and preceding events”. Meanwhile, some “countries are notorious for their histories of bad institutions (think of Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, and Libya).” What leaps off the page, of course, is the role of French colonialism in Algeria, British in Egypt and Italian in Libya—something that does not enter the calculation of the authors or the reviewer.

Since Argentina has been independent since the early 19th century, one might presume that colonialism was not a factor. Indeed, in an online book titled “Economic Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship”, Acemoglu and Robinson devote sections to Britain and then Argentina without once mentioning the impact of the former on the latter.

But if you are seriously interested in understanding why nations fail, a good place to start is with the British role in Argentina in the post-independence era, something I looked into in a series of articles on that “failed” nation some time ago. I was inspired to write it since a liberal economist Brad DeLong, who shares many of Acemoglu and Robinson’s ideological assumptions, posed the question of why Australia and Canada “succeeded” and Argentina did not. In other words, DeLong was setting up the same kind of ahistorical brand-A, brand-B comparison that is pursued in “Why Nations Fail”. This is what I found out:

The most important sector of the Argentine ruling class in the 19th century was the ‘estancieros’, or ranchers. From 1820 onwards, they began to develop an alliance with British capital, which was seen as strategic for the goal of exploiting the country’s land-based riches. Arising from within its ranks, Juan Manuel de Rosas emerged as the primary spokesman for this class. British merchants played an important role in guaranteeing the Argentine rancher access to world markets. Smiling benignly on this interdependence, the British consul wrote:

the manufactures of Great Britain are becoming articles of prime necessity. The gaucho is everywhere clothed in them. Take his whole equipment – examine everything about him – and what is there not of raw hide that is not British? If his wife has a gown, ten to one that it is made at Manchester; the camp-kettle in which he cooks his food, the earthenware he eats from, the knife, his poncho, spurs, bit, all are imported from England. . . Who enables him to purchase these articles? Who buys his master’s hides, and enables that master to employ and pay him? Who but the foreign trader. Stop the trade with foreign nations, and how long would it be before the gaucho would be reduced to the state of the Indian of the Pampas, fed on his beef and horse-flesh, and clothed in the skins of wild beasts?” (Bendaña, p. 34)

However, one important piece was missing from this jigsaw puzzle. Unless a modern railway system was introduced into the country, Argentine goods would be not as competitive with those of countries which could deliver beef, hides, and etc. to seaports in a much shorter time over rail rather than horse-back. Furthermore, unless workers and managers could make reasonably quick trips over rail between cities and rural points of production, the entire system would lack the kind of internal cohesion that other capitalist countries enjoyed. From the standpoint of classical economics, one would think that it would be to the mutual benefit of English and Argentine capitalist classes to develop a kind of partnership. Instead, what transpired has much more in common with the con games of the 1990s in which Wall Street banks got rich at the expense of the Argentine people. Except, in the 19th century, it was Barings Bank rather than Goldman-Sachs that was doing the robbing.

To look after its interests in this vastly ambitious railroad-building enterprise, the Argentine government named North American William Wheelwright as its agent. They were overly optimistic. After making the rounds in British banking houses, Wheelwright said in 1863 that a deal could be done only on the following basis:

–The land grant must be doubled (land adjacent to the tracks given free to the railroad company.)

–45 percent of the railroad revenue would be counted as working expenses.

–The profit ceiling would be raised to 15 percent, more than triple the norm.

–Most importantly, the expropriation clause would be eliminated.

Although the Argentine ruling class and its British partners were committed to liberalism in the economic sphere (the model for 1980s-90s neoliberalism), this loan-sharking deal had nothing to do with free market principles. Such concessions could only reflect the internal weaknesses of a bourgeoisie that relied on cattle ranching, as opposed to the British ruling class that had accumulated vast amounts of capital through manufacturing, and then finance.

When the shares for Central Rail, the new British-owned railroad, sold sluggishly, the bankers demanded further concessions. No longer would working expenses be limited to 45 percent, they would be *whatever the company accountants said they were*. So, not only do you get concessions forced down the throat of the Argentine government, you get an 1860s version of the kind of accounting that Arthur Anderson did on behalf of the Enron crooks.

To make sure that all the Central shares got sold, the British investors demanded that the Argentine government buy 2000 shares, which is a little bit like asking someone being hijacked to drive the truck. An Argentine Minister glumly commented:

We are faced with having to lower our heads for all these demands and any other ones that may be put before us given our nation’s need for the railway’s benefits and our own incapacity to secure these by any other means. (Bendaña, p. 93)

Finally, in the May of 1870, 17 years after the original conception and 7 years after work began, the first locomotive arrived in Córdoba. Over the course of the 1870s, the Argentine state provided nearly 40 percent of the guaranteed profits for the new railroad. In a nutshell, the wealth of the country was being drained to make sure that British investors enjoyed super-profits. Furthermore, the British enterprise was tax-exempt. This turned out to be a bonanza for the Central Argentine Land Company that came into existence in 1871. Unlike the railroad, commercial exploitation within land claim areas were far less risky and had no particular claim to the kind of tax-exempt status enjoyed by large-scale capital projects. Once again, the weak Argentine bourgeoisie had been given an offer that it couldn’t refuse.

With British technological superiority, one might at least hope that the new railway would provide adequate service. As it turned out, the Argentine people had ended up with a Yugo rather than a Rolls-Royce. Public complaints about service and rates grew legion.

Central was just the first in a series of white elephants. Next came the Northern, the Eastern, and the Great Western Railways, all financed by the British and all imposing larcenous penalties on the people of Argentina. A government audit revealed that the East Argentine railroad was marked by an excess of employees (exclusively English at high salaries), overly generous salaries for company directors, inadequate rolling stock, dubious accounting procedures, and bloated operating costs.

When such exploitation operates in open view, one might ask why the Argentine capitalists did not rebel. After all, if one is committed to national development, then one must allow oneself the ultimate weapon against foreign exploiters: expropriation. Unfortunately, except for the urban middle-class, such calls were not made. As is the case today, the dominant fraction of the national bourgeoisie lost its nerve. And like today, the ideological excuse for inaction was a commitment to the “free market.” The estancieros regarded their own economic well-being as synonymous with the extension of railway lines made possible by foreign investment.

When the harsh reality of British theft collided with the delusional schemas of the local bourgeoisie, voices of dissent began to be heard in parliament. Why couldn’t the nation redeem itself through seizure of properties that were based on criminality to begin with? Even the conservative “La Nación” asked in 1872:

Can and should the state build all railways itself and expropriate existing ones? We do not believe that the benefits of state railways should necessarily carry us to the latter consequence . . . Although the country cannot afford expropriation now or for many years to come, there may come a day when revenue and necessity may, possessed of means and facing a need for new lines, expropriation might become convenient. (Bendaña, p. 152)

Skilled as they were in keeping the natives at bay, the British turned to one defense after another. They bribed ministers, congressmen and railroad bureau officials to vote against nationalist legislation or to look the other way when laws were being broken. When this proved insufficient, the British were not above gunboat diplomacy. In late 1875, the British bank in Rosario suddenly demanded immediate repayment of railroad notes as part of a maneuver to destroy local financial competitors. When the nationalist-minded local governor in Santa Fe sided with his countrymen, the British sent their navy to blockade the city. Buenos Aires caved in to the show of force and the British won their demands without a shot being fired. Bendaña cites H. S. Ferns’s “Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century”:

prosperity had created a nation of boosters, and the porteños (Buenos Aires elites) looked at the Governor of Santa Fe as Pierpont Morgan might have regarded William Jennings Bryan. (p. 258)

By 1913, Great Britain owned 95.8 percent of all private railways in Argentina. That amounted to 60.2 percent of total British investment in the country. The economic consequences on the nation were enormous. Arturo Castaño, a legislative deputy and rail expert, warned:

the more the railways extend themselves, the greater will be the economic disruptions, and the greater will be the migration to the cities from the provinces. A third of our national production is absorbed by the railways, without the Executive being able to intervene in rate-making due to an administrative system which favors the companies.

Indeed, when foreign capitalists absorb a third of national production, the question of imperialism has to be addressed.

The railway era lasted about a century. The first 3 decades, from 1830 to 1860, were a time of rapid expansion in the imperial centers. The spread of railways into Asia, Africa and Latin America did not produce concomitant benefits. Although Cecil Rhodes characterized railroads as “philanthropy plus 5 percent,” the profits were always far higher and the progress realized in countries such as Argentina was far less than advertised.

The reason that some nations are winners and some are losers does have something to do with institutions but only as the result of the relationship between them. If you see one guy walking around briskly and the other on crutches, you might want to see if there is a connection. If one is a mafia collector and the other is someone who owed a loan shark money, you might want to ask if the crutches are a result of getting hit in the knees by a baseball bat. At least, I would.

The authors are trying to figure out why Norway is 496 times richer than Burundi and look for explanations in the superiority of European agriculture, the tropical climate that allows parasites to flourish all year long, etc. Here’s a much better way of understanding the problem in terms of the baseball bat:

It is not without interest to observe that even then these leading British bourgeois politicians saw the connection between what might be called the purely economic and the socio-political roots of modern imperialism. Chamberlain advocated imperialism as a “true, wise and economical policy”, and pointed particularly to the German, American and Belgian competition which Great Britain was encountering in the world market. Salvation lies in monopoly, said the capitalists as they formed cartels, syndicates and trusts. Salvation lies in monopoly, echoed the political leaders of the bourgeoisie, hastening to appropriate the parts of the world not yet shared out. And Cecil Rhodes, we are informed by his intimate friend, the journalist Stead, expressed his imperialist views to him in 1895 in the following terms: “I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

May 19, 2012


Filed under: Film,india — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

On Wednesday May 23rd, New Yorkers have the unprecedented opportunity to see what amounts to India’s “The Battle of Algiers”. Bedabrata Pain’s “Chittagong” has been selected as the opening night feature of the 2012 New York Indian Film Festival shown simultaneously in 3 theaters (for location, click here). Like Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece, this is political film at its most magnificent.

One could easily imagine that Pain might have made the film without ever having seen “The Battle of Algiers”. The parallels are not so much a function of imitation but a faithful rendering of Indian history—the story of a heroic but ultimately doomed armed struggle in colonial India that lasted 4 days in 1930 and that evokes the fitful ups and downs of resistance to French colonialism in Algeria. And as is the case with “The Battle of Algiers”, the colonized eventually triumph against the colonizers in a way that will leave the audience standing on its feet and cheering.

Bedabrata “Bedo” Pain

I met Bedabrata (his friends call him Bedo) in 2007 after he read my review of “Amu”, a powerful narrative film about the anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 directed by Shonali Bose that he produced. As a highly skilled engineer, who had a patent on the world’s smallest camera used by NASA, he provided the seed money for a most worthy film. The CMOS technology used in that camera provided the basis for consumer digital cameras, so the next time you are on vacation taking pictures of your loved ones remember to tip your hat to Bedo!

Although he was an engineer by vocation, his greatest passion was making film himself, and more specifically films that took up the cause of India’s common people. When C.P. Snow decried the gulf between science and art, he surely had never met the likes of Bedo Pain.

In 2008 Bedo gave up a lucrative career at NASA and became a full-time director, with “Chittagong” as his first project. He told The National, an Abu Dhabi newspaper:

My PhD advisor told me that by the time you are 45, you should be absolutely settled in what you are doing, you have your roots planted so deep that you just build upon that, you concentrate on making the leaves of your tree rather than the trunk. And as it turns out, that was exactly the age where I said ‘screw the tree’.

I have vivid memories of my meeting with Bedo as he recounted his desire to make a film about the Chittagong events. Since I was under the impression, like many who had little detailed knowledge about Indian history, that the freedom struggle was completely identified with Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, I was spellbound by his tale of the armed struggle that took place in 1930.

For the next few years, Bedo became a specialist on the Chittagong events. As a serious filmmaker, his intention was clearly to both do justice to the actual history and make cinematic art. Beyond my wildest expectations, Bedo Pain took material out of the dust-covered historical archives and breathed new life into it, so much so that you feel like you have been transported to British-ruled India in 1930.

All of the major characters in “Chittagong” are the historical figures who either died in battle, were subsequently executed by the British, or sent to Andaman prison for long and debilitating sentences, including Subodh “Jhunku” Roy—the sole surviving Chittagong combatant who was interviewed by the director at the age of 92 during the course of the film’s making (he died 2 weeks after its completion.)

Jhunku was 14 years old when he joined Surya Sen’s militia. His followers knew Sen, a high school teacher and ardent nationalist, as Masterda, an honorific that meant “teacher-brother”. When we first meet Jhunku (Delzad Hiwale), he is in a lavish home taking piano lessons from the wife of Wilkinson (Barry John), the British magistrate who runs Chittagong. Wilkinson is the classic paternalistic liberal colonizer who feels that he is there to civilize the natives, especially Jhunku, the son of a lawyer and a political moderate, who he hopes to get into Oxford.

Since Jhunku knows the identity of the classmates who have joined up with Masterda, he is pressured by Wilkinson to name names—assuring him that they are just wanted for questioning and nothing else. As “soft cop”, Wilkinson turns the names over to Charles Johnson, the chief of police, who is the clenched fist in the velvet glove. Wasting no time, Johnson (Alexx O’Nell) and his goons raid a festival celebration and kill one of those named in cold blood. Johnson is also a torturer who we see clipping off two of Surya Sen’s forefingers with wire-cutters during an interrogation. Johnson is to his Indian captives as the brutal Colonel Mathieu is to the Algerians in Pontecorvo’s film.

Veteran Indian actor Manoj Bajpai who I first saw in the 1994 “Bandit Queen”, another deeply political Indian film, plays Surya Sen. While Masterda is revered by everybody, he is modest to a fault. When Jhunku becomes radicalized by British treachery, Masterda only accepts him into the ranks reluctantly. He and Jhunku as well understand that they are facing a well-trained and superior-armed imperial army.

The goal was never to launch a general uprising. Instead, they hoped to raise the morale of the Indian people by demonstrating that the British were not invincible. Even if every last fighter died, they would be martyrs to a greater cause, namely the freedom of their people.

The young men who train with Masterda and his chief lieutenants Ganesh Ghosh (Vishal Vijay) and Anant Singh (Jaideep Ahlawat) come to the forest at night or in early morning to take target practice with the few firearms they have absconded from the British, in the same manner as the Algerians.

The goal is to seize the armory and steal firearms that can be used to hold off the British for as long as possible in a liberated Chittagong. By destroying a section of the railroad tracks that connect the city to Calcutta, they hope to maximize that time. When the British eventually regrouped and attacked the several dozen young rebels occupying higher ground in Jalalabad hills on the afternoon of April 22, 1930, they were forced to retreat from the highly motivated fighters even though they had machine guns and over a thousand troops. Jalalabad is one of the great victories of revolutionary fighters in the 20th century and well deserves the commemoration it gets in  “Chittagong”.

As is the case in “Battle of Algiers”, the arrest, torture, and death of the anti-colonial movement does not mark the end of the struggle. It rises Phoenix-like in the final moments of the film in a way that will stir you in a way that no other political film in memory has done. Just after that scene finishes, we see the closing credits and learn that some of Masterda’s fighters became Communist members of parliament, including Ghosh and Singh.

This marks a logical progression from the strategy and tactics of the Chittagong fighters who were organized as the Indian Republican Army into what would become a movement based more on mass struggle than martyrdom.

When we see Masterda and his followers at a meeting in the forest on one occasion, they conclude their business by chanting, “Long Live the Indian Republican Army”. It is more than a coincidence that they share the same initials as the Irish Republican Army, as Suniti Qanungo, the nephew of a 14-year-old Chittagong martyr, indicates:

The influence of the Irish revolution was so deep on the mind of the Chittagong revolutionaries that the volunteer corps of Chittagong was organized after the manner of the Irish forces of volunteers  which  were  provided  with   militant instructors. The revolutionary army was formed after the manner of Irish Republican Army (IRA) and named Indian Republican Army.20 Irish Republican Army was created in January 1919 as successor to the   Irish  volunteers,  a  militant  nationalist organization founded in 1913. The day of Chittagong rebellion was selected Easter Friday in remembrance of the Easter Rebellion, a sudden rising by less than 2000 men in Dublin. The rebels seized some government establishments and proclaimed an Irish republic. They held out for six days. The rebellion was cruelly suppressed by British army.

Kalpana Dutt, one of the female combatants of the Indian Republican Army, eventually found her way to communism as well. In the final chapter of her Reminiscences, she explains how she became a Communist:

Three or four years later it was decided to keep all the women political prisoners together. Many of them had the opportunity to learn about happenings in the world outside through long periods of stay with the rest of the detainees, and a few periodicals and journals of a progressive type like the Parichaya also began to trickle through the prison bars. From there I could hear about communism from time to time and from them too came to me books of socialism and communism by Joad, Cole and Shaw.

The arguments and the approach of these books began to stir the mind and forced me to ponder over the difference that these have with the revolutionary literature in which I had been steeped so long. The narratives of revolutionary deeds, the lives of Khudiram, Kanailal, Bhagat Singh no doubt stirred us to the very core, teaching us to defy death: but these writings on socialism and communism could not be set aside as irrelevant, and so the faint rumblings of a new battle could be heard within myself.

“Chittagong” is committed to showing the role of women fighters like Kalpana Dutt. One such historical figure is Pritilata Waddedar (Vega Tamotia) who died in combat against the British in the aftermath of a raid on the European Club in Chittagong (graced by the sign at the front door “No dogs or Indians allowed”) that killed Charles Johnson in the middle of a speech about the great victory he had led against the rebels.

If it is almost impossible not to think of “Battle of Algiers” when watching “Chittagong”, it is also nearly impossible not to consider contemporary India, especially the controversy over the Maoists that Arundhati Roy wrote about in her 2010 essay “Walking with the Comrades”. To those who believe that India became free after national independence and under long-time Congress Party rule, nothing might seem more irrational than armed struggle. Unfortunately, the world capitalist system has a way of undermining true national independence through its control of markets and capital investment, even in places where armed struggle rather than nonviolence was the principal mode of struggle, or at least a major component. Algeria itself comes to mind, as does post-Apartheid South Africa.

Arundhati Roy takes this question head-on:

This legacy of rebellion has left behind a furious people who have been deliberately isolated and marginalised by the Indian government. The Indian Constitution, the moral underpinning of Indian democracy, was adopted by Parliament in 1950. It was a tragic day for tribal people. The Constitution ratified colonial policy and made the State custodian of tribal homelands. Overnight, it turned the entire tribal population into squatters on their own land. It denied them their traditional rights to forest produce, it criminalised a whole way of life. In exchange for the right to vote, it snatched away their right to livelihood and dignity.

Having dispossessed them and pushed them into a downward spiral of indigence, in a cruel sleight of hand, the government began to use their own penury against them. Each time it needed to displace a large population—for dams, irrigation projects, mines—it talked of “bringing tribals into the mainstream” or of giving them “the fruits of modern development”. Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people (more than 30 million by big dams alone), refugees of India’s ‘progress’, the great majority are tribal people. When the government begins to talk of tribal welfare, it’s time to worry.

Although I am not a Maoist ideologically, I heartily concur with the helmsman’s statement that it is right to rebel. India, like China, is a society that is deeply divided by class. While peasants commit suicide in record numbers, Mumbai businessman Mukesh Ambani erects a 27-story mansion that cost $1 billion, the most expensive home ever built.

Surya Sen built a movement specifically against British colonialism but it is not hard imaging him as a Maoist guerrilla in 2012. What use is national independence if you are condemned to economic suffering? Indeed, the class contradictions that were submerged during the fight for independence become much more obvious when the ruled become the new rulers, the subject of another film by Gillo Pontecorvo: “Burn”.

Although this review focuses more on the politics of “Chittagong” than the craft (what else would you expect from the unrepentant Marxist), a few words might be added in summation. Unlike some recent Indian movies that were targeted to Western audiences, “Chittagong” is distinctly Indian, even going as far as to include Bollywood style songs (but no dancing!) that serve as a kind of Greek chorus to the events seen on the screen. Ever the Renaissance man, Bedo Pain is lead singer in one of them.

The sure hand of the director is also seen in the way that he draws out the most convincing performances from his actors, especially Barry John as Wilkinson, the well-meaning imperialist magistrate. John is utterly convincing as a man who is torn between sympathy for the people under the British boot and his elevated role in the Empire that wears it. In real life, John is anything but a colonizer. Born in 1944, John was deeply influenced by the spiritual side of Indian culture and studied the Upanishads, just as I did as a freshman at Bard in the early 60s. John eventually moved to India and became deeply involved with the Indian theater. If the British had come to India in the 18th century on the same terms, much suffering could have been avoided. That, of course, is the key question of our epoch—how patterns of domination can finally be superseded and how peoples can live together peacefully and in economic security. “Chittagong” is exactly the kind of film that captures the spirit of that quest.

May 18, 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is dead

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:03 pm

NY Times May 18, 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Bountiful German Baritone, Dies at 86


Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the German baritone whose beautiful voice and mastery of technique made him the 20th century’s pre-eminent interpreter of art songs, died on Friday at his home in Bavaria. He was 86.

His wife, the soprano Julia Varady, confirmed his death to the German press agency DPA.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was by virtual acclamation one of the world’s great singers from the 1940s to his official retirement in 1992, and an influential teacher and orchestra conductor for many years thereafter.

He was also a formidable industry, making hundreds of recordings that pretty much set the modern standard for performances of lieder, the musical settings of poems first popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. His output included the many hundreds of Schubert songs appropriate for the male voice, the songs and song cycles of Schumann and Brahms, and those of later composers like Mahler, Shostakovich and Hugo Wolf. He won two Grammy Awards, in 1971 for Schubert lieder and in 1973 for Brahms’s “Schöne Magelone.”

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau (pronounced FEE-shur-DEES-cow) had sufficient power for the concert hall, and for substantial roles in his parallel career as a star of European opera houses. But he was essentially a lyrical, introspective singer whose effect on listeners was not to nail them to their seatbacks, but rather to draw them into the very heart of song.

The pianist Gerald Moore, who accompanied many great artists of the postwar decades, said Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had a flawless sense of rhythm and “one of the most remarkable voices in history — honeyed and suavely expressive.” Onstage, he projected a masculine sensitivity informed by a cultivated upbringing and by dispiriting losses in World War II: the destruction of his family home, the death of his feeble brother in a Nazi institution, induction into the Wehrmacht when he had scarcely begun his voice studies at the Berlin Conservatory.

His performances eluded easy description. Where reviewers could get the essence of a Pavarotti appearance in a phrase (the glories of a true Italian tenor!), a Fischer-Dieskau recital was akin to a magic show, with seamless shifts in dynamics and infinite shadings of coloration and character.

He had the good luck to age well, too. In 1988, at 62, he sang an all-Schumann program at Carnegie Hall, where people overflowed onto the stage to hear him. Donal Henahan, then the chief music critic of The New York Times, noted that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice had begun to harden in some difficult passages — but also that he was tall and lean and handsomer than ever, and had lost none of his commanding presence. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau described in his memoir “Reverberations” (1989) how his affinity for lieder had been formed in childhood. “I was won over to poetry at an early age,” he wrote. “I have been in its thrall all my life because I was made to read it, because it gave me pleasure, and because I eventually came to understand what I was reading.”

He discerned, he said, that “music and poetry have a common domain, from which they draw inspiration and in which they operate: the landscape of the soul.”

Albert Dietrich Fischer was born in Berlin on May 28, 1925, the youngest of three sons of Albert Fischer, a classical scholar and secondary school principal with relatively liberal ideas about education reform, and his young second wife, Theodora Klingelhoffer, a schoolteacher. (In 1934, Dr. Fischer added the hyphenated “Dieskau” to the family name; his mother had been a von Dieskau, descended from the Kammerherr von Dieskau, for whom J. S. Bach wrote the “Peasant Cantata.”)

Family members knew Dietrich, as he was called, as a shy, private child who nonetheless liked to entertain. He put on puppet shows in which he voiced all the parts, sometimes for an audience of one: his physically and mentally disabled brother, Martin, with whom he shared a room.

Before adolescence Dietrich was inducted into a Hitler Youth group where, he recalled years later, he was appalled by the officiousness as well as the brutality. His father died when he was 12. And he had just finished secondary school and one semester at the Berlin Conservatory when, in 1943, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and assigned to care for army horses on the Russian front. He kept a diary there, calling it his “attempt at preserving an inner life in chaotic surroundings.”

“Poems by Morgenstern,” one entry read. “It is a good idea to learn them by heart, to have something to fall back on.”

“Lots of cold, lots of slush, and even more storms,” read another. “Every day horses die for lack of food.”

It was in Russia that he heard that his mother had been forced to send his brother to an institution outside Berlin. “Soon,” he wrote later, “the Nazis did to him what they always did with cases like his: they starved him to death as quickly as possible.”

And then his mother’s apartment in Lichterfelde was bombed. Granted home leave to help her, he found that all that remained of their possessions could be moved to a friend’s apartment in a handcart. But as early as his second day home, he and his mother began seeking out “theater, concerts, a lot of other music — defying the irrational world.”

Instead of returning to the disastrous campaign in Russia, he was diverted to Italy along with thousands of other German soldiers. There, on May 5, 1945, just three days before the Allies accepted the German surrender, he was captured and imprisoned. It turned out to be musical opportunity: soon the Americans were sending him around to entertain other P.O.W.’s from the back of a truck. The problem was, they were so pleased with this arrangement that they kept him until June 1947. He was among the last Germans to be repatriated.

With all that, he was still only 22 when he returned for further study at the Berlin Conservatory. He didn’t stay long. Called to substitute for an indisposed baritone in Brahms’s “German Requiem,” he became famous practically overnight. As he said, “I passed my final exam in the concert hall.”


Because of his youth, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau had been in no position to make his own choices in the 1930s and ’40s, so he didn’t encounter the questions about Nazi ties that hung over many a prominent German artist after the war. (The soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, his frequent musical collaborator, repeatedly denied that she had joined the Nazi Party until confronted with evidence in 1983. “It was akin to joining a union,” she said in an explanatory letter to The Times, “and exactly for the same reason: to have a job.”)

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau gave his first professional lieder recital in Leipzig in the fall of 1947. Success followed success, with lieder performances in Britain and other European countries beginning in 1949. He first toured the United States in 1955, choosing for his New York debut to sing Schubert’s demanding “Winterreise” cycle without intermission.

Meanwhile, he had made his opera debut in 1948, singing Posa in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” at Berlin’s Städtische Oper (later renamed the Deutsche Oper), where he was hired as principal lyric baritone. He also sang regularly at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and appeared frequently in the opera houses of Vienna, Covent Garden, Salzburg and Bayreuth.

Versatility was not the least of his assets. He tackled everything from Papageno in “The Magic Flute” — who knew that a goofy bird catcher could have immaculate diction? — to heavier parts like Wotan in “Das Rheingold” and Wolfram in “Tannhäuser.” He recorded more than three dozen operatic roles, Italian as well as German, along with oratorios, Bach cantatas and works of many modern composers, including Benjamin Britten, whose “War Requiem” he sang at its premiere in 1962.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was married in 1949 to his sweetheart from his student days, the cellist Irmgard Poppen. They had three sons: Matthias, who became a stage designer; Martin, a conductor; and Manuel, a cellist. Ms. Poppen did not live to see them grow: she died of complications after Manuel’s birth in 1963. For her husband, it was a profound, disorienting loss.

He was married again, to the actress Ruth Leuwerik, from 1965 to 1967, and again, to Christina Pugel-Schule, the daughter of an American voice teacher, from 1968 to 1975.

His fourth marriage, to Ms. Varady, the Hungarian soprano, in 1977, was a rewarding match. Like the many artists who studied with him more formally, Ms. Varady found him to be a kindly, constructive and totally unsparing mentor.

His insistence on getting things right comes through vividly in scenes of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau at rehearsal or conducting master class. In a widely circulated video, at the time, of him coaching a young Christine Schäfer, Ms. Schäfer is singing beautifully, or so it would seem to your average mortal, yet the smiling maestro interrupts time and again to suggest something better. And it isn’t merely that he is invariably correct; it’s also that when he rises to sing just a few illustrative notes, the studio is instantly a stage, and he illuminates it with what seems to be an inner light. Even better is a documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon, “Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: Autumn Journey” with archival and up-to-date footage of a master at work in his many trades.

Besides making music, he wrote about it — insightful, accessible books about the lives and music of great composers, including Schubert and Schumann. He was a widely exhibited painter, too, known especially for his portraits.

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau retired from opera in 1978. He continued giving song recitals through the end of 1992 and then, on New Year’s Day 1993, announced that he would sing onstage no more.

Of the many tributes he received over the decades, perhaps none was more heartfelt than that of the British music critic John Amis:

“Providence gives to some singers a beautiful voice, to some musical artistry, to some (let us face it) neither, but to Fischer-Dieskau Providence has given both. The result is a miracle and that is just about all there is to be said about it.”

Mr. Amis continued, “Having used a few superlatives and described the program, there is nothing else to do but write ‘finis,’ go home, and thank one’s stars for having had the good luck to be present.”


May 17, 2012

The Hardt-Negri declaration

Filed under: anarchism,autonomism,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Michael Hardt

Antonio Negri

It was to be expected that Toni Negri and Michael Hardt would eventually weigh in on the protests sweeping the world, from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. Their Declaration can be read on http://www.scribd.com/doc/93152857/Hardt-Negri-Declaration-2012 and is well worth the trouble. (I found it impossible to print but that might have just been a problem on my own computer.) Even if you disagree with much of it (as I do), it is necessary reading because of their influence. Furthermore, I detect a positive evolution in their thinking—especially a willingness to reconsider the merits of state power, albeit in a highly qualified manner. Like someone saying that though broccoli tastes like shit, it might be good for you.

Published in 2000, their “Empire” was widely seen as a generalized expression of the nascent anti-globalization movement that had a preponderantly anarchist leadership (an oxymoron?) Although Hardt and Negri come out of the autonomist tradition, there is enough of an affinity between the two movements that it was possible for them to serve as spokesmen. Now, just over a decade later, the anarchist movement has new winds blowing in its sails. While David Graeber is rightfully seen as a kind of patron saint to the Occupy movement, I am sure—well, mostly sure–that he would not resent Hardt and Negri playing the role of elder statesmen. (Did I say statesmen? No insult intended…)

To start off, I was very pleased to see that Hardt and Negri take note of the particular dynamics of debt today, something that I have written about recently.  In my view, debt tends to isolate us and make struggle more difficult. Instead of confronting a boss as a unified group of employees, such as sit-down strikers in Flint, Michigan in 1938, the battle is between the individual and the bank or collection agency. (In their words, “No longer is the typical scene of exploitation the capitalist overseeing the factory, directing and disciplining the worker in order to generate a profit.”)

Turning to chapter one, I found these words particularly illuminating:

Whereas the work ethic is born within the subject, debt begins as an external constraint but soon worms its way inside. Debt wields a moral power whose primary’ weapons are responsibility and guilt, which can quickly become objects of obsession. You are responsible for your debts and guilty for the difficulties they create in your life. The indebted is an unhappy consciousness that makes guilt a form of life. Little by little, the pleasures of activity and creation are transformed into a nightmare for those who do not possess the means to enjoy their lives. Life has been sold to the enemy.

Another feature of life today that Hardt and Negri get right is how much it is defined through security, such as cameras, cops and prisons:

You are not only the object of security but also the subject. You answer the call to be vigilant, constantly on watch for suspicious activity on the subway, devious designs of your seatmate on the airplane, malicious motives of your neighbors. Fear justifies volunteering your pair of eyes and your alert attention to a seemingly universal security machine.

The sections on debt and what they call “the securitized” are much better than the one that follows, titled “The Represented”. Like Zizek, another celebrity, they are utterly disdainful of bourgeois democracy:

So many of the movements of 2011 direct their critiques against political structures and forms of representation, then, because they recognize clearly that representation, even when it is effective, blocks democracy rather than fosters it. Where, they ask, has the project for democracy gone?

They hail the Spanish protestors for not getting involved in electoral politics:

The indignados did not participate in the 2011 elections, then, in part because they refused to reward a socialist party that had continued neoliberal policies and betrayed them during its years in office, but also and more importantly because they now have larger battles to fight, in particular one aimed at the structures of representation and the constitutional order itself—a fight whose Spanish roots reach back to the tradition of antifascist struggles and throw a new and critical light on the so-called transition to democracy that followed the end of the Franco regime. The indignados think of this as a destituent rather than a constituent process, a kind of exodus from the existing political structures, but it is necessary’ to prepare the basis for a new constituent power.

One is not sure why participating in the 2011 elections was identical to supporting the Social Democrats. While I am no expert in Spanish politics, it would seem to me that there is some use in challenging the ideological status quo through the kinds of campaigns that Syriza ran since 2004. Who knows? Such a party might be capable of getting elected if the people get “indignado” enough.

For Hardt and Negri, just as was the case in 2000 when they wrote “Empire”, politics is only effective when it is local, in a kind of post-Marxist tip of the hat to the late ward-heeling Congressman Tip O’Neill. And no other group exemplifies this purer approach to social change than the EZLN in Chiapas:

The clearest contemporary example of the communicative capacity of an encampment is perhaps the decades-long experiment of the Zapatista self-rule in Chiapas, Mexico. The EZLN was renowned early in its existence for its novel use of the media, including electronic communiques and Internet postings from the Lacandon jungle. Even more important and innovative, though, are the communicative networks and political truths created in the Zapatista community practices of collective self-government.

The allure of Zapatismo, at least for me, wore off quite time ago. While the struggle was instrumental in helping the anti-globalization movement to get off the ground, it has failed to materially change the conditions of life for the poor in Chiapas. As I stated in a critique of John Holloway’s “How to Change the World without Taking Power”:

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.

By contrast, Cuba’s medical system allowed its people to live longer than other Spanish-speaking nation in the Western Hemisphere, including Puerto Rico. Infant mortality in Cuba was seven deaths per 1,000 live births, much lower than the rest of Latin America.

Back in 2000, Hardt and Negri were so deep into their anti-statism that they would have seen no benefit from Hugo Chavez or any other state leader attempting to devote the nation’s resources to the benefit of the people. The “national liberation” project was dead from the start:

The perils of national liberation are even clear when viewed externally, in terms of the world economic system in which the ‘liberated’ nation finds itself. Indeed, the equation nationalism equals political and economic modernization, which has been heralded by leaders of numerous anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles from Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh to Nelson Mandela, really ends up being a perverse trick…The very concept of a liberatory national sovereignty is ambiguous if not completely contradictory. While this nationalism seeks to liberate the multitude from foreign domination, it erects domestic structures of domination that are equally severe.

I was pleased to see that they now see some benefits in what they call progressive governments in Latin America. From the section titled “Progressive governments and social movements in Latin America” in chapter 3:

From the 1990s to the first decade of this century, governments in some of the largest countries in Latin America won elections and came to power on the backs of powerful social movements against neoliberalism and for the democratic self-management of the common. These elected, progressive governments have in many cases made great social advances, helping significant numbers of people to rise out of poverty’, transforming entrenched racial hierarchies regarding indigenous and Afro-descendant populations, opening avenues for democratic participation, and breaking long-standing external relations of dependency, in both economic and political terms, in relation to global economic powers, the world market, and US imperialism. When these governments are in power, however, and particularly when they repeat the practices of the old regimes, the social movements continue the struggle, now directed against the governments that claim to represent them.

So the basic approach outlined here amounts to critical support. In Bolivia, for example, one assumes that Hardt and Negri would find some merit in the election of Evo Morales while identifying with the protestors who “continue the struggle”. The only question, of course, is whether it makes sense for Bolivians to follow the example of the EZLN and Spain’s indignados, who tend to abstain from electoral politics.

These questions take on some urgency in light of the recent election results in Greece that prompted many leading Spanish leftists to write an open letter to Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras:

We want you, the members of your organization and the Greek citizens who, as political activists, trade unionists or participants in broad social movements, share the project of creating a common life truly based on freedom and solidarity, to know the hope with which we throughout Europe anticipate the possibility that, soon, a new Greek government of popular unity will confront the dictatorship of the financiers and bureaucrats who have hijacked Europe.

We see the current conjuncture in Greece as a turning point which could lead to a radical transformation of the European political and economic order. We need a new Europe, a Europe of and for its citizens and all its inhabitants, free of the brutal austerity policies that prioritize the payment of an odious, illegal and illegitimate debt, which prevents the human development of our communities. This is the call heard today throughout the squares of Europe, from Puerta del Sol in Madrid to Syntagma Square in Athens, squares scattered all over the European geography, liberated places that are the seeds and the constituent basis of the real democracy that women and men in Europe want to build together.

Would it make sense for the Greek left to hold Syriza at arm’s length? I think not. No matter the weakness of the leadership on one point or another, the election of Syriza holds out the promise that the Greek people will finally begin to turn back the monstrous austerity drive being imposed on it by Germany and its international allies in the big bourgeoisie. Class society will not be abolished in the ballot box, but we should never stand on the sidelines when issues of whether or not pensions should be slashed in half are at stake.

If Hardt and Negri remain hostile to what they call “socialist governments”, they do—for the first time, I believe—hold out hope for what Marx (and Lenin) described as the building blocks of true democracy, the Paris Commune or Soviet type formation:

Several twentieth-century’ socialist initiatives, for example, sought to spread power in a federalist manner by putting power in the hands of workers and constructing the means for workers to make political decisions themselves. Workers’ councils constituted the central proposition of all streams of socialism that, contrary to the authoritarian currents, consider the primary’ objective of revolution to be democracy, that is, the rule of all by all. At least since the Paris Commune, the workers’ council in its many variants, such as the German rat or the Russian soviet, has been imagined as the basis for a federalist legislative power. Such councils and the forms of delegation they institute serve not so much to represent workers but instead to allow workers directly to participate in political decision making. In many historical instances, of course, these councils functioned in a constituent way only for a brief period.

Of course, the Paris Commune is the gold standard for practically everybody on the hard left, from Marxists to autonomists to anarchists. Like the classless society, how can anybody object to it? The big difference appears to be over transitional formations like the “progressive governments” in Latin America or the USSR, even before Stalin’s rise.

There are also differences over coordinated political action through the medium of a revolutionary organization. Since Leninism has become so compromised, there is a tendency for some on the left to make a principle out of “localism” or what has been called “horizontalism”.

In a politically backward country like the USA, it matters little if you are a “horizontalist” or a dyed-in-the-wool Leninist. We are not in the ninth month of a pregnancy so your ideological affinities with Bakunin or Marx could matter less. What matters most is being effective and on this score the anarchists were a credible force early on.

However, in Greece such questions have a bit more urgency whether or not the country is in the fifth month or the ninth. By the time you get to the fifth month of a pregnancy, you have to be damned careful or else you will end up with a de facto abortion if you don’t take care of yourself.

Politics, especially electoral politics, does matter in such conditions. It matters that the KKE has taken such a suicidally sectarian position. It is, with all proportions guarded, akin to the position that the German CP took during the rise of Hitler, when it opposed the social democracy as “social fascist”. Leftists in Greece have an obligation to counter the bourgeoisie on all fronts, including the electoral front.

On May 13, the NY Times wrote about the support that Greeks gave Syriza. For some, the election was a chance to put a “progressive government” in power of the kind that Hardt and Negri gave critical support to:

But it is Europe, fearful of encouraging more policy slippage by Greece, that has been pushing the austerity line. And the danger of such an approach is growing by the day, he said.

“For whatever reason, the hard-liners in Europe are saying that we deserve it,” Mr. Hardouvelis said. “They have destroyed the political center here, and the possibility of creating another Hugo Chavez is not zero.”

For the moment, it seems unlikely that Greece will get the chance to see if Mr. Tsipras — with his talk of repudiating the country’s debt and opposing privatization — will become as radicalized as Mr. Chavez, the Venezuelan leader.

But his message that Greece can stay in the euro and reject Europe’s budget-cutting terms has struck a chord, however contradictory that may seem.

While everybody can understand the need for the revolutionary movement in Greece to apply pressure to a Syriza government from the left, in accord with the formulations in the Hardt-Negri article, it should be obvious to all that such an outcome hinges on Syriza taking power. In revolutionary politics, the final outcome—communism—rests on the outcome of many, many skirmishes and battles along the road to the final conflict. As such, keeping an open mind about electoral politics and every other medium of struggle is imperative.

A smart Chihuahua

Filed under: humor,Obama — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.