Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

Filed under: humor,television — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm

Hurricane Sandy and the Second Contradiction of Capitalism

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as I pondered the insanity of the bourgeoisie once again neglecting its infrastructure, I found myself thinking about James O’Connor’s Second Contradiction of Capitalism theory for the first time in a while. When I first began reading and writing about ecology  back in the early 90s, O’Connor was a major influence on my thinking. Now 82 and in poor health, O’Connor is pretty much retired from writing and editorial work. Joel Kovel has taken over the editor position at “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism”, (http://www.cnsjournal.org/) the journal that O’Connor launched in 1988.

Here’s O’Connor on the ruling class’s failure to look after its long-term interests:

An ecological Marxist account of capitalism as a crisis-ridden system focuses on the way that the combined power of capitalist production relations and productive forces self-destruct by impairing or destroying rather than reproducing their own conditions (“conditions” defined in terms of both their social and material dimensions). Such an account stresses the process of exploitation of labor and self-expanding capital; state regulation of the provision of production conditions; and social struggles organized around capital’s use and abuse of these conditions. The main question — does capital create its own barriers or limits by destroying its own production conditions? — needs to be asked in terms of specific use values, as well as exchange value. This is so because conditions of production are not produced as commodities, hence problems pertaining to them are “site specific,” including the individual body as a unique “site.” The question — why does capital impair its own conditions? — needs to be asked in terms of the theory of self-expanding capital, its universalizing tendencies which tend to negate principles of site specificity, its lack of ownership of laborpower, external nature, and space, hence (without state or monopolistic capitalist planning) capital’s inability to prevent itself from impairing its own conditions.

From: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/second_contradiction.htm

If this Atlantic Monthly article doesn’t summon up images of the second contradiction, I don’t know what does:

The 2011 Report That Predicted New York’s Subway Flooding Disaster

Last fall, as part of a massive report on climate change in New York, a research team led by Klaus Jacob of Columbia University drafted a case study that estimated the effects of a 100-year storm on the city’s transportation infrastructure. Considering MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota’s comments today that Hurricane Sandy’s impact on the subway was “worse than the worst case scenario,” it seems pretty safe to put Sandy in the 100-year category. In that case, assuming the rest of the report holds true, the subway system could be looking at a recovery time of several weeks, with residual effects lasting for months and years.

The researchers modeled a potential 100-year storm that consisted of either a category 1 or 2 hurricane hitting nearby, or a severe nor’easter that coincided with high tide. (As we know now, Sandy was a hybrid of all three events.) The models predicted complete flooding of several tunnels after such an event, including all the tunnels in the East River:

Based on their models, Jacob and colleagues wrote that a 100-year storm could leave roughly 1 billion gallons of water to be pumped from the city’s network of subway tunnels. (To give you an idea of scale, that’s equal to the average daily consumption of drinking water in the city.) If all 14 tunnels flooded, it would take about five days to pump each one clear, according to the report. However that’s the best-case scenario; a week per tunnel is more likely.

Immediate flood-clearing isn’t the only concern. As Ted Mann writes for the Wall Street Journal, salt water is likely to have considerable residual effects on the aging subway system. Jacob and colleagues write that equipment damaged by brackish water will at least require time to clean and could also require time for replacement. In some cases, when the parts are too old and no longer in production, it could require completely new infrastructure:

There probably are not enough personnel trained to rebuild and refurbish equipment simultaneously in multiple subway lines even if the equipment could be procured. There is some existing equipment that, if damaged, cannot be replaced because it is obsolete and is no longer manufactured, nor are there replacement parts for it. Such equipment would have to be redesigned and then installed — a process that can take a long time.

* * * *

The citation from  O’Connor above was from the introduction to the collection of CNS articles titled “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism” that can be read here in its entirety. The book contains articles by Michael Lebowitz, Samir Amin and John Bellamy Foster among others.

(I took the liberty of reformatting O’Connor’s article since it was not that eyeball-friendly in the original.)

It has been quite a number of years since I had anything to say about O’Connor’s theory but this is from something I wrote about 15 years ago, I guess. It is from an article titled “David Harvey, James O’Connor and Engels’ “Conditions of the Working Class in England” that I wrote long before I began blogging. For that matter, it was probably written before blogs existed.

James O’Connor has developed a theory of the “second contradiction” of capitalism that addresses these sorts of concerns.

In an essay “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible” that appears in a collection “Is Capitalism Sustainable” edited by Martin O’Connor (no relation), he defines both the first and second contradictions of capitalism.

The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to expand. The system can not exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes of productions such as feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on what Marx calls “simple reproduction” and what many greens call “maintenance” is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation and, consequently, ever-increasing replacement of living labor by machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other more draconian measures.

However, according to O’Connor, as capital’s power over labor increases, there will be contradictory tendency for profit in the capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of capital then can be defined as what obtains “when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity, speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways of getting more production from fewer workers.” The unintended result is that the worker’s loss in wages reduces the final demand for consumer commodities.

This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral. Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today, no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about “globalization”.

The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the “conditions of production”. The “conditions of production” require three elements: *human labor power* which Marx called the “personal conditions of production”, *environment* which he termed “natural or external conditions of productions” and *urban infrastructure*, the “general, communal conditions of production”.

All three of these “conditions of productions” are being undermined by the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is conceived in an amorphous and fragmented manner as the environmental crisis, the urban crisis, the education crisis, etc. When these problems become generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials, infrastructure, etc.

During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of the “conditions of production” were hardly an issue since there was apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter phase in the twentieth century, the problems deepen until they reach crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis (which are actually interconnected).

What they don’t realize is that these problems are rooted in the capitalist system itself and are constituted as what O’Connor calls the “second contradiction”. He says, “Put simply, the second contradiction states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the ‘productivity’ of the conditions of production and hence to raise average costs.”

O’Connor cites the following examples: Pesticides in agriculture at first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is nuclear power which was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the opposite effect.

If capitalism was a rational system, it would restructure the conditions of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example, ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch public health programs based on preventative medicine.

Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However, competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the pressures of the “first contradiction” (in other words, the need to expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class declines), destroy the possibility for such public investment. As such possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation in turn raises the cost of production.

What Engels observed in the Great Towns of England was an acute crisis based on the Second Contradiction of capitalism. Places like Manchester were becoming uninhabitable due to the necessity of capital to maximize profits without being ready to make the commitment to defend the conditions of the reproduction of capital itself: clean water, fresh air, public health, education, etc.

England, Germany, the United States and Japan of course made great headway in the twentieth century in resolving these types of contradictions at the expense of the colonized world. While the air and water of Manchester may have became *relatively cleaner*, the air and water of Calcutta worsened as the satanic mills of England migrated overseas.

The big question before working-people today of course is the emergence of the “second contradiction” on a global scale. Now that capitalism has become a genuinely global system, what new areas are capable of being despoiled. Scientists have discovered that vast portions of the central African rain-forest have disappeared, and that the environment has consequently undergone radical transformations. These transformations, according to journalist Laurie Garrett in her “The Coming Plague” are responsible for the outbreak of AIDS, Ebola and similar viruses.

Socialists have to begin thinking much more in global terms to confront these problems. We have to stop behaving as if it were the 1840s. The world is a pretty interconnected place today and it is about time that we related to this rather than schemas from a hundred years ago based on a form of the class-struggle that no longer exists.

I will probably have much more to say about O’Connor’s theory and the Hurricane Sandy catastrophe in a subsequent post.

October 30, 2012

What to make of the “encouraging” 7.8 percent unemployment rate

Filed under: economics,financial crisis — louisproyect @ 6:36 pm

When the news came out on October 5th that the unemployment rate had dropped to 7.8 percent, the Obama administration embraced the numbers as proof that its policies were working. The NY Times, one of the president’s most consistent supporters, reported that day:

The jobless rate abruptly dropped in September to its lowest level since the month President Obama took office, indicating a steadier recovery than previously thought and delivering another jolt to the presidential campaign.

The improvement lent ballast to Mr. Obama’s case that the economy is on the mend and threatened the central argument of Mitt Romney’s candidacy, that Mr. Obama’s failed stewardship is reason enough to replace him.

The Romney campaign counterattacked on two fronts. First, the candidate asserted that 7.8 percent is “not what a real recovery looks like”—a position that the left can share even as it opposed Romney’s neo-Victorian economic solutions. Second, its supporters claimed that the numbers were bogus. Chief among them was Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, tweeting on October 5th: “”Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change number.”

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman used his op-ed perch at the NY Times to answer Welch:

Leading the charge of what were quickly dubbed the “B.L.S. truthers” was none other than Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, who posted an assertion on Twitter that the books had been cooked to help President Obama’s re-election campaign. His claim was quickly picked up by right-wing pundits and media personalities.

It was nonsense, of course. Job numbers are prepared by professional civil servants, at an agency that currently has no political appointees. But then maybe Mr. Welch — under whose leadership G.E. reported remarkably smooth earnings growth, with none of the short-term fluctuations you might have expected (fluctuations that reappeared under his successor) — doesn’t know how hard it would be to cook the jobs data.

On October 11th, Jack Welch used the Wall Street Journal (what, you were expecting the Nation Magazine?) to defend his tweet:

The Obama campaign and its supporters, including bigwigs like David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, along with several cable TV anchors, would like you to believe that BLS data are handled like the gold in Fort Knox, with gun-carrying guards watching their every move, and highly trained, white-gloved super-agents counting and recounting hourly.

Let’s get real. The unemployment data reported each month are gathered over a one-week period by census workers, by phone in 70% of the cases, and the rest through home visits. In sum, they try to contact 60,000 households, asking a list of questions and recording the responses.

Some questions allow for unambiguous answers, but others less so. For instance, the range for part-time work falls between one hour and 34 hours a week. So, if an out-of-work accountant tells a census worker, “I got one baby-sitting job this week just to cover my kid’s bus fare, but I haven’t been able to find anything else,” that could be recorded as being employed part-time.

Left economist Jack Rasmus, who shares the ex-GE CEO’s first name as well as his skepticism about the BLS statistics, wrote:

The current population survey (the 873,000) represents a statistical operation on raw jobs data that adjusts that raw (i.e. actual) jobs data by means of several statistical operations–i.e. seasonality, etc.—to get to the 873,000.  But before the raw data is statistically adjusted, another source of raw data is added to the initial data and only after that is the statistical adjustment carried out. This second source is jobs data estimated from assumptions about New Business Formation that are lagged up to nine months.

Here’s how it works. The labor department assumes net new businesses are formed nine months previous. That would be last November-December 2011. These data on new business formation are very inexact. It’s not actual new businesses but an assumed historical average of new businesses. So the past years in which new business formation was high is substitute for the more recent period when new business formation is in fact low, or even negative. It’s really a  shaky estimation process.

Doug Henwood responded to Rasmus but only to defend the legitimacy of the statistics rather than the Obama administration’s neoliberal economic policies:

This is completely wrong. The business formation estimates figure into the establishment survey, the monthly survey of almost 500,000 worksites – more info here:


That survey is the principal source of the headline job gain/loss figures. The household survey – of 60,000 households – is independent of the establishment survey. The unemployment figures and this CPS 873,000 figure come from the HH survey. It’s the result of asking people if they’ve been working, looking for work, neither, etc. More detail on the HH survey here:


The HH survey has nothing to do with the establishment survey. There are no assumptions about new business formation at all. It just comes from asking people questions and adding up their answers. It’s very volatile – you need a change of 400,000 to reach statistical significance. The employment numbers bounce around a lot. You can get +800,000 one month and -500,000 the next. The raggedness evens out over the course of a year, but monthly changes should be taken with a grain of salt, or three.

Without mentioning his name, Rasmus seemed to have responded to Doug’s critique on October 10th, which led to a follow-up once again from Doug.

Speaking for myself (and who else matters?), I am ready to accept the statistics at face value but wonder if Jack Welch had a point on part-time work. I say this as someone with direct experience in the area since I am currently on unemployment, the benefit of having my position eliminated at Columbia University.

My unemployment benefits are $405 per week. If I didn’t have a spouse who was making a decent income as a tenure-track professor, I would be forced to re-enter the job market under duress especially if was not receiving social security benefits as well. So if I was a 40-year-old unemployed computer programmer, I might have landed a part-time job on a help-desk somewhere that paid $455 per week or so. This puts me $455 over the unemployment ceiling and thus not eligible for benefits. But how can you live on $455 per week when your rent is something like $1200 per month or so, the price of a modest studio apartment in New York. You are left with $100 per week for food, transportation, medical expenses, and entertainment, what have you.

As the BLS openly admitted, a spike in part-time employment contributed to the improved job figures:

The number of persons employed part time for economic reasons (sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers) rose from 8.0 million in August to 8.6 million in September. These individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job.

This is the greatest monthly increase in involuntary part-time work since September 2011.

To get a feel for the human dimension of those forced into the part-time arena, there is a must-read article that appeared in the October 27 NYT written by Steven Greenhouse, a relatively enlightened reporter who is rumored to be a red diaper baby. If I were teaching Marxist economics to college students, I would have them read this article that includes the following:

While there have always been part-time workers, especially at restaurants and retailers, employers today rely on them far more than before as they seek to cut costs and align staffing to customer traffic. This trend has frustrated millions of Americans who want to work full-time, reducing their pay and benefits.

“Over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full-time to at least 70 percent part-time across the industry,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm.

No one has collected detailed data on part-time workers at the nation’s major retailers. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that the retail and wholesale sector, with a total of 18.6 million jobs, has cut a million full-time jobs since 2006, while adding more than 500,000 part-time jobs.

Technology is speeding this transformation. In the past, part-timers might work the same schedule of four- or five-hour shifts every week. But workers’ schedules have become far less predictable and stable. Many retailers now use sophisticated software that tracks the flow of customers, allowing managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand.

“Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts,” said David Ossip, founder of Dayforce, a producer of scheduling software used by chains like Aéropostale and Pier One Imports.

This is what capitalism has always been about, after all. In its infancy, it exploited labor through the use of an 11-hour day, child labor and the like—what Marx called the extraction of absolute surplus value. In the contemporary era, the tendency is toward the use of contingency labor or part-timers.

It is ironic that firms using leading-edge technology to control costs have little to show in the way of “creative destruction”. We were told in high school that when the automobile replaced the horse, the loss of blacksmith jobs would be compensated by the growth of assembly-line jobs building cars. Now this might have been viable during the “Fordist” epoch but in a globalized capitalist economy, there is little guarantee that new, well paying, full-time jobs are in the offing. This is something that even the bourgeois ideologists are being forced to admit, as David Leonhardt reported in the NYT on October 23rd:

Some of the disconnect between the economy’s problems and the solutions offered by Washington stem from the nature of the current political debate. The presidential campaign has been more focused on Bain Capital and an “apology tour” than on the challenges created by globalization and automation.

But economists and other analysts also point to the scale of the problem. No other rich country — not Japan, not any nation in Europe — has figured out exactly how to respond to the challenges. “The whole notion of the American dream,” said Frank Levy, an M.I.T. economist, “described a mass upward mobility that is just a lot harder to achieve right now.”

For the first time since the Great Depression, median family income has fallen substantially over an entire decade. Income grew slowly through most of the last decade, except at the top of the distribution, before falling sharply when the financial crisis began.

By last year, family income was 8 percent lower than it had been 11 years earlier, at its peak in 2000, according to inflation-adjusted numbers from the Census Bureau. On average in 11-year periods in the decades just after World War II, inflation-adjusted median income rose by almost 30 percent.

Rather than to try to explain what all this means in Marxist terms, I am going to refer you—dear reader—to an exceptionally interesting analysis of the 7.8 unemployment figure by Sam Williams who blogs at http://critiqueofcrisistheory.wordpress.com. I have no idea who Williams is but I can describe him as quite a well-informed critic of the capitalist system.

In a post titled The September 2012 Unemployment Numbers and the ‘Surplus Population’, he evaluates the trustworthiness of the statistics as well as their meaning within a broader context of class relations.

Williams’s chief contribution is to challenge the underlying theoretical framework for such statistics as accepting the framework of bourgeois economics. He writes:

According to the neo-classical marginalist theory, every person has a choice between holding a job at the going wage rate for workers of their particular skills, or choosing leisure. Assuming “perfect competition” prevails in the labor market, marginalism claims that each worker can obtain a job at a wage that corresponds to the amount of value that the worker’s labor will create, assuming the potential worker chooses employment over leisure. Therefore, a large idle population is not really a problem. It is simply the consequence of a free society—as opposed to a slave society—where people are “free to choose” between employment at a wage that corresponds to the value that their labor will create if they choose employment, and leisure.

This neo-classical theory of employment and unemployment forms the basic assumptions used by capitalist governments when they calculate the unemployment rate.

The rate of unemployment estimated by capitalist governments therefore makes no attempt to measure the percentage of the population that is “voluntarily choosing leisure over employment” but only those who are actively seeking work, the so-called “involuntarily unemployed.” Consequently, official unemployment figures measure only a small part of the unemployed population, or to use the more honest 19th-century terminology, the surplus population. Therefore, in order to cover up the current long-term unemployment crisis we are confronted with today, there is no need to actually falsify the figures. Rather, the falsification is built right into the method and assumptions by which unemployment is calculated.

Williams goes farther than me in deconstructing the way that unemployment figures are compiled. If it makes sense to see involuntary part-time workers as part of the army of the unemployed, why not go a bit further and see the actual army in the same terms:

The considerable number of young people—many members of oppressed nationalities—who join the armed forces only because they have no chance of finding employment elsewhere—are not counted either. In the New Deal years, when official figures on employment and unemployment first began to be calculated, members of the armed forces were not considered employed. This was an echo of the theories of the classical economists who considered solders to be “unproductive workers,” since they did not produce surplus value for the capitalists.

Quite right, I’d say.

This is what we need more of. With the debate over “job growth” being seen as the bailiwick of Jack Welch on one side and Paul Krugman on the other, it makes sense to pay closer attention to what people like Sam Williams are saying. In a very real sense, it is the same kind of battle that Jill Stein is fighting, the right to be heard against two perspectives equally committed to the rule of the one percent over the ninety-nine percent.

October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

This is the last storm that hit the Northeast that is on the scale of the one we face now:

Even if I lived within the vulnerable Zone A that has been designated as an evacuation area by the authorities, I would still have few worries about flooding since I am on the thirteenth floor of a high-rise.

My old friend Jeffrey is not so fortunate. His house is a block from the Atlantic Ocean on the Rockaways, a peninsula that is 100 percent Zone A. CBS news reported:

Rockaway Beach was on the list for areas of New York City deemed Zone A for evacuation purposes, and by Sunday night, Hurricane Sandy had sent the floodwaters rising.

As CBS 2’s Jamie Yuccas reported, Yuccas was knee-deep in brown, foamy water as she stood on the Rockaway Beach each late Sunday night. The water was funneled through two areas where sand breakers were located and pushed its way toward 137th Street.

Jeffrey lives on 138th Street.

As I am writing this, it is 1:28 PM in NYC and the rain has a taken on a horizontal trajectory while the winds are capable of turning even the stoutest umbrella inside out. And this is a good five hours until the storm has achieved its maximum force.

Frankly my biggest concern is not about being hit by a falling tree or losing my belongings due to a flood. Rather it is loss of electricity. While this is nothing more than an inconvenience, it is a major one nonetheless since I live on the thirteenth floor. A few years ago, during a blackout, I had to walk up and down for necessities and it was not fun. People in their 70s and 80s had it worse. They were just stuck until the power came back on.

Just as was the case during Hurricane Katrina, there are those who pose the question whether this looming disaster is a function of climate change. The New Yorker Magazine offers this:

As with any particular “weather-related loss event,” it’s impossible to attribute Sandy to climate change. However, it is possible to say that the storm fits the general pattern in North America, and indeed around the world, toward more extreme weather, a pattern that, increasingly, can be attributed to climate change. Just a few weeks before the Munich Re report appeared, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in New York, published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the apparent increase in extreme heat waves. Extreme summertime heat, which just a few decades ago affected much less than one per cent of the earth’s surface, “now typically covers about 10% of the land area,” the paper observed. “It follows that we can state, with a high degree of confidence, that extreme anomalies”—i.e., heat waves—“such as those in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 and Moscow in 2010 were a consequence of global warming because their likelihood in the absence of global warming was exceedingly small.” It is worth noting that one of several forces fuelling Sandy is much-higher-than-average sea-surface temperatures along the East Coast.

You will note that the New Yorker makes the customary caveat: As with any particular “weather-related loss event,” it’s impossible to attribute Sandy to climate change.

This enables scientists on the payroll of energy corporations to cast doubt on any major storm’s tie to climate change in the same fashion as the “experts” who testified that smoking does not necessarily lead to cancer, emphysema, etc.

As a rule of thumb, the biggest environmental crises we face are subject to the same kind of plausible deniability alibi. For example, there will always be corrupt scientists eager to step forward and argue that pesticides and herbicides do not cause cancer. Since the exact biological process in which cells mutate has not been revealed, this will always provide wriggle room for those disposed to getting some payoff from a multinational corporation.

If cancer remains something of a mystery on the cellular level, there will continue to be debates about whether a particular storm was caused by climate change. While it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the fiction that greenhouse gases do not lead to climate change, the likelihood of “proving” that a storm was caused by it will remain daunting.

It is obviously left up to socialists to create a world in which humanity strives to create an environment where either catastrophic storms or diseases are minimized. As the rather off-putting Sandra Steingraber put it to me an interview a couple of weeks ago, cancer can be linked to three different conditions: 1. Life-style, such as smoking; 2. Genetic predisposition; and 3. Man-made carcinogens that we have little or no control over, such as PCB’s, etc. While all three interact with each other, it is only the third that we need to wage a political struggle to overcome.

The same thing is true of climate change. There will obviously always be terrible storms. But we need to wage a political struggle to control the emission of greenhouse gases that are the byproduct of petroleum-based energy production, which finally can only be consummated through the creation of a worldwide socialist system.

In 2007 Obama was running as the best friend environmentalists ever had. In this stump speech given in New Hampshire, he says all the right things about climate change calculated to get the votes of those listening to him.

But here’s the reality we face now:

NY Times October 25, 2012
Both Romney and Obama Avoid Talk of Climate Change

WASHINGTON — For all their disputes, President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that the world is warming and that humans are at least partly to blame. It remains wholly unclear what either of them plans to do about it.

Even after a year of record-smashing temperatures, drought and Arctic ice melt, none of the moderators of the four general-election debates asked about climate change, nor did either of the candidates broach the topic.

Throughout the campaign, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have seemed most intent on trying to outdo each other as lovers of coal, oil and natural gas — the very fuels most responsible for rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Tweedle-dee. Tweedle-dum.

German composer Hans Werner Henze dies age 86

Filed under: Germany,music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

guardian.co.uk, Saturday 27 October 2012 14.58 BST


Elegy For Young Lovers

Steven Page in Elegy For Young Lovers, staged by English National Opera at London’s Young Vic theatre in April 2010. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

The death of German composer Hans Werner Henze has been announced today.

Schott Music said that Henze, 86, died on Saturday in Dresden; the cause of death has not been disclosed, but Henze’s health has been frail since suffering from a serious illness in his late 70s that left him incapacitated for two months in 2005.

Henze’s work over the decades straddled musical genres.
He composed stage works, symphonies, concertos, chamber works and a requiem. He once said that “many things wander from the concert hall to the stage and vice versa.”

Henze was born July 1, 1926 in Gütersloh in western Germany. After studying and begun his career in Germany, he moved to Italy in 1953. Having lived through fascism, he became a committed communist, and many of his works of the 60s and 70s have an explicitly political inspiration (his Sixth Symphony was composed for Cuba). But the expressive freedom of Henze’s music put him at odds with the post-war avant-garde. In Italy – in Ischia and latterly in a house in the hills outside Rome, he developed a language of searing, abundant poetry that drew on the Austro-German tradition from Beethoven to Berg yet was also infused with Mediterranean lightness and modernist astringency. His many operas, from Boulevard Solitude in 1951 to his final works in the genre, Phaedra, written in 2007 and Gisela, 2010, belong to the most important canon of theatrical works of our time (including We Come To The River, composed for Covent Garden in 1976); his series of 10 symphonies and other large-scale works are among the most significant reinvigorations of the orchestral tradition in the post-war period.

October 28, 2012

Interview on music

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

My wife’s nephew from Istanbul just started community college in the USA as a communications major. The other day he asked me to take part in an interview about music. His questions and my answers appear below. I invite you to answer the questions yourself, a bit of a break from Syria, the black bloc, electoral politics and my usual obsessions!

1. What kind of music did you listen to when you grew up? (Have them name specific songs, bands, and genres if possible). What was your favorite? (then you’ll find youtube links if possible and describe the music).

ANSWER: I listened to rock and roll. This was before the “British invasion” and consisted of different styles.

The first was white groups who sang in close harmony and were considered unthreatening to one’s parents. For example, Dion and the Belmonts were very popular. Even though they were white, their primary influence was Black “doo-wop” groups. Here are Dion and the Belmonts performing “A Teenager in Love”, a song that captured the feelings of frustrated young people everywhere:

The next was Black groups and performers that came out of the “rhythm and blues” tradition. The most famous was Little Richard who like many Black artists adapted Gospel singing to the more rebellious rock-and-roll movement. Even though his music was very “Black”, most of his fans were white as this Youtube clip reflects:

The last style that came under the general umbrella of rock-and-roll was called Rockabilly. It combined rock with country-and-western. My favorite musician was Eddie Cochran. Here he is performing “Come On, Everybody”:

While Elvis Presley belonged to the Rockabilly school, he also incorporated the Little Richard Black sound and became the number one artist. Unfortunately, after his first two records, he started making mainstream music geared to Las Vegas audiences.

2. Did you have any traditional music that you grew up with? Any ethnic music? Holiday music? Church music? And/or family traditions involving music?


There were lots of Jewish songs that we learned to sing for religious holidays. I have forgotten most of them but I am pretty sure that I knew the words to this when I was a young boy:

3. What kind of music do you remember your parents and even grandparents (if possible) liking and listening to? (Name specific genres, bands, names of songs if possible – find youtube links of these and describe the music).


When I was young, there were still lots of people my parents’ and grandparents’ age that spoke Yiddish (this was the language of Jews from Eastern Europe). For them the music of the Yiddish musical comedy era was still very much alive. I remember my father singing “Romenye, Romenye” from time to time. This was a song that Aaron Lebedeff, a big star of Yiddish theater, was famous for performing. It is all about the pleasures of living up in Romania:

4. Did you ever play an instrument or sing? Describe.


I have a very good ear for music but can’t carry a tune. That means that it is not a good idea for me to sing. I studied trumpet for a couple of weeks in high school but dropped it because I didn’t like it when the teacher yelled at me. I also studied piano for a couple of weeks after school but dropped it because it was too hard.

5. Did you know anyone else in your family or any close friends who played an instrument or sang? Describe.


My wife, who is from Turkey, is a great singer but she never sings because she is too busy preparing classes and writing articles. She also plays guitar but left it in Istanbul when she came to the USA to study. Maybe I will buy her a new one some day.

6. What did music do for your life when you were young and throughout your life?


Music is my greatest passion after politics. I have collected records and then CD’s from every imaginable style, from opera to jazz to world pop. When guests come to my home, I offer them drink from a well-stocked bar, food, and good music. Although I don’t understand the words in this video, I feel that the Turkish rock music Baris Manco expressed my feelings here:

7. If you could pass on something concerning music to the next generation, what would you tell them?


I would tell them to only buy CD’s made by people with integrity. Too much music is being made today that is catering to the marketplace rather than to one’s artistic vision. This is especially true with respect to hip-hop that all too often lacks any kind of connection to the real problems of Black America, except for the rare artist like Lupe Fiasco whose father was a member of the Black Panther Party:

October 27, 2012

Bernie McFall, ¡Presente!

Filed under: nicaragua,obituary — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

I just learned today of the death of Bernie McFall. I have great memories of Bernie as a returned Tecnica volunteer who worked with the N.Y. chapter to oppose contra funding and to provide material aid for Nicaragua. Among all the wonderful people I got to know, Bernie stood out as a kind, gentle, affable human being with a very strong belief in social justice. I knew hardly anything about his personal background except that he was in the Peace Corps at one time and came from Kansas City, Missouri where I was born during WWII.

Here’s the obituary on Bernie that I received from the Weekly News Update on the Americas blog:

Longtime solidarity activist Bernie McFall died of complications from pneumonia in Elmhurst Hospital in Queens on Oct. 16. He was 76 and had been fighting two forms of cancer.

Bernie was a reliable presence at demonstrations, vigils and picket lines in the New York area for more than two decades, with a special focus on solidarity with the peoples of Central America, Cuba, Haiti and Palestine. During the contra war of the 1980s Bernie worked with the California-based organization TecNica in Nicaragua as a volunteer consultant on IBM mainframes. In the 1990s he traveled to the West Bank to observe conditions there, and he visited Cuba in the early 2000s.

Photo: Life or Liberty

Although he was probably best known for his dedication in handling the routine work of political organizing—photocopying, leafleting, mailing out fliers—Bernie was knowledgeable in many areas, especially Middle Eastern history. He could read an astonishing number of languages, including French, Spanish, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and some Mandarin. He studied Fijian in the 1970s when he was in the Peace Corps, and he learned Arabic in a US military school during the late 1950s, when he was stationed in Eritrea, which was then annexed to Ethiopia. Years later he would smile and say: “They wouldn’t necessarily approve of how I’ve used what they taught me.”

The New York-based Palestinian activist Farouk Abdel-Muhti was a close friend, and he was staying at Bernie’s apartment in April 2002 when a joint task force of immigration agents and the New York City police arrested him in what quickly became a cause célèbre. Bernie worked steadily in the two-year campaign that finally won Farouk’s release; the federal judge who freed Farouk described the Palestinian’s imprisonment as “Kafkaesque.” Bernie himself was threatened and harassed by the police and others during the campaign; filmmaker Konrad Aderer provides more information on Bernie’s role at the Life or Liberty website.

Bernie was involved with the Weekly News Update from its first days in 1990, working tirelessly to select and clip articles to be summarized and often arranging for photocopying. We will be joining with others to honor him with a memorial; we’ll announce the plans as soon as we know them.

A few weeks before he died, Bernie asked to make sure his books were made available to people who would make good use of them. Please contact us at weeklynewsupdate@gmail.com if you would like more information on the collection, which includes a number of books in Arabic.

Bernie’s birthday, February 2012. Photo: Rena Cohen/NYC

October 25, 2012

Sound the Trumpet

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

Ronnie Kasrils book party

Filed under: South Africa — louisproyect @ 7:34 pm

As is the case with just about everything I do except computer programming, videography is but an avocation. As a highly motivated amateur, I hope that I make up for what I lack technically with a good sense of what people would find interesting.

Given that criterion, I was extremely pleased to discover that a NY Times article on Golden Dawn in Astoria linked to a video I made of a rally against the neo-Nazi group on October 9th. In the paragraph below from the Times article, the “teach-in” link is to my video report on the event.

Because it was not possible to speak in detail about Golden Dawn New York, the gathering became a kind of teach-in, with academics lecturing on Greek history in the post-Nazi era, what was called the failure of European immigration policy and the symbiotic relationship between Golden Dawn in Greece and the Greek power structure.

Just as the prospects of a rally in Astoria against Golden Dawn suggested to me that something newsworthy was afoot, I was fortunate enough to follow my instincts and go to a book party for Ronnie Kasril’s “The Unlikely Secret Agent” last Monday night armed with my trusty JVC GY-HM150U camcorder that can best be described as a mixture of the professional and the amateur—just like me, come to think of it.

I was really looking forward to meeting Ronnie since “The Unlikely Secret Agent” that deals with his wife’s escape from a South African mental hospital in 1963 was about as great a read as I’ve had this year. So great in fact that I wasted no time and followed it up with Ronnie’s memoir “Armed and Dangerous”. I reviewed both books here.

I was not disappointed. Ronnie Kasrils is not only an important veteran of one of the greatest freedom struggles of the past 50 years but gifted with an ability to write and speak about his experiences in a completely riveting manner. And even more importantly, he is one of the highest profile veterans of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party to have mounted a critique of governmental abuse of the very people who were instrumental in bringing it to power.

While I am sure that Ronnie would have been compelling in his own right, the evening benefited by his interaction with interviewer Danny Schechter who has known and worked with Ronnie ever since the days he was a student at the London School of Economics. Ronnie’s role there was as an “outside agitator”, reminding me of my own interventions at Harvard in the early 1970s.

Schechter is a masterful interviewer, a craft developed over the years in both television and radio. In the 1980s he produced South Africa Now, a weekly show on WABC TV that ran just after Gil Noble’s show. It was some of the best TV that could be seen at the time and a crucial aid in the fight against apartheid.

For those puzzling over the crisis in South Africa today, I can think of no better introduction to its origins than this conversation between two seasoned activists. Send a link to this report far and wide since it deserves the widest attention. Hear that, NY Times?

October 23, 2012

Fidel Castro is Dying by Fidel Castro

Filed under: cuba — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm


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