Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 29, 2015

Will the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank be any different than the World Bank?

Filed under: Argentina,China,economics,imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 10:33 pm

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The day before yesterday an article appeared on the Guardian website that had the aura of a Chinese government press release:

As world leaders met quietly behind the scenes, others lined up to express support for the new development push that aimed to eliminate both poverty and hunger over the next 15 years. They replace a soon-to-expire set of development goals whose limited success was largely due to China’s surge out of poverty over the past decade and a half.

China’s president vowed to help other countries make the same transformation. Xi said China would commit an initial $2bn to establish an assistance fund to meet the post-2015 goals in areas such as education, healthcare and economic development. He said China would seek to increase the fund to $12bn by 2030.

And Xi said China would write off intergovernmental interest-free loans owed to China by the least-developed, small island nations and most heavily debt-burdened countries due this year.

He said China “will continue to increase investment in the least developed countries,” and support global institutions, including the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that is due to launch by the end of the year and is seen as a Chinese alternative to the more western-oriented financial institutions of the World Bank.

After having read and reviewed Patrick Bond and Ana Garcia’s “BRICS: the anti-capitalist critique”, I am more skeptical than ever about Chinese altruism especially the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank referred to in the last paragraph above.

I was also puzzled by the provenance of the article since it was included with others in the category “Sustainable Global Development” that was support4ed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is described as follows:

This website is funded by support provided, in part, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Content is editorially independent and its purpose is to focus on global development, with particular reference to the millennium development goals and their transition into the sustainable development goals from 2015.

All our journalism follows GNM’s published editorial code. The Guardian is committed to open journalism, recognising that the best understanding of the world is achieved when we collaborate, share knowledge, encourage debate, welcome challenge and harness the expertise of specialists and their communities.

I confess that I have as much confidence in this foundation’s commitment to sustainable development as I do in the Windows Operation System, especially for their promotion of the Green Revolution, an application of chemicals to food production that has led to all sorts of problems as I indicated here: http://louisproyect.org/2009/09/20/food-imperialism-norman-borlaug-and-the-green-revolution/

In an article for Huffington Post, Richard Javad Heydarian, the author of the forthcoming “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific State”, casts a skeptical gaze over the Chinese gifts to the developing world, reporting on the Philippines’s encounter with the China EximBank, an entity that the new bank will likely mimic:

Under the Arroyo administration (2001-2010), the Philippines’ National Broadband Network (NBN) signed a $329.5 million contract with China’s ZTE Corp. to upgrade its facilities and communications network. It also signed the $431 million Northrail infrastructure contract, which was awarded to China National Machinery and Industry Corp. (Sinomach) and largely financed by the China EximBank.

The NBN-ZTE venture, however, would be mired in a massive corruption scandal, after investigations revealed huge kickbacks, cost inflations, and irregularities in the contract. Failing to meet laws requiring competitive bidding, the Philippines’ Supreme Court, meanwhile, struck down the Northrail project.

The common perception in the Philippines is that the ZTE and Northrail contracts were some sort of bribe to pressure/persuade the Arroyo administration to compromise on South China Sea and sign up to the controversial and secretive Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) agreement in 2005, which was deemed unconstitutional and in violation of Philippine national patrimony and requirements for transparency and consultations with other branches of the government, particularly the legislature.

During his recent visit to Tokyo, Philippine President Beningo Aquino also complained about the alleged decision of the China EximBank to prematurely demand drawdowns from its Northrail project loan at the risk of default. In short, Aquino suggested that China wanted to punish his government for standing up to China by using its loan payment card.

In a CounterPunch article dated March 6, 2015, Ecuadorian journalist Raul Zibechi considered the possibility that Chinese investments in Latin America could have a different character than what the Chase Manhattan Bank and Citibank offered. Initially China was focused on mineral extraction and agricultural commodities such as soybeans but in the more recent period, it has invested in areas that depart from the traditional colonizing relationship between the core and the periphery. They include arms manufacturing in Latin America, which offers the possibility of ancillary benefits to the non-military sector just as was the case with radar after WWII, and infrastructure. He points to the construction of two hydroelectric dams in the Santa Cruz province. One is named the Kirchner after the late President and the other is called the Cepernic after the late governor of the province. Another ostensibly worthwhile project is the upgrade of railway equipment, including cars to renovate dilapidated trains. So how can you be like the old-time Anglo-American imperialists when you are building dams and modernizing the railway system in Argentina? How dare you stand in the way of progress?

If the goal is “sustainable development”, it is doubtful that there is much difference between the World Bank when it comes to hydroelectric dams. The Dialogo Chino website that is dedicated to tracking the impact of Chinese investment in Latin America referred to these dams as “mired in environmental conflict” in a February 13, 2015 article.

Experts claim the maximum level of the Kirchner dam, at the same average level of the Argentino Lake, is unsuitable, increasing the level of the lake and causing tides that will erode the front of the Perito Moreno glacier and stop the traditional blocks of ice breaking off, a phenomenon that attracts thousands of tourists.

The controversy is not without precedent. Across the border in Chile, also in Patagonia, the HidroAysén project would have resulted in the construction of five hydroelectric power plants, two on the River Baker and three on the River Pascua. However, fierce criticism from environmental groups and indigenous communities resulted in a council of ministers rejecting the project last year.

“The dam will be fed from the lake, whose level will rise and fall to meet Buenos Aires’ energy requirements and consumption. The glacier will not be immune to variations and their erosive effects,” argues Gerardo Bartolomé, the engineer at the head of an online petition aiming to ensure the correct environmental studies are carried out for the dams.

Similarly, Juan Pablo Milana, a glaciologist and researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), believes the dams will cause irreversible damage to the Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers.

“The glaciers are already subject to the forces of nature and introducing further changes is complicated. Increasing the level of the Argentino Lake will create a flotation effect. Lower water pressure at the base of the glacier will not only cause detachment of ice but will also change the way it breaks off,” explains Milana.

It seems that the Chinese engineers overseeing the project worked on the Three Gorges Dam so you can get an idea of how much thought has gone into the environmental impact in Argentina.

Finally on the question of Argentina’s rail system. Pardon me for sounding like an unrepentant Marxist but when I hear about improvements to a transportation system that is primarily intended to haul commodities from the interior of a country to its seaports, I reach for my revolver.

This is an article I wrote on the construction of railroads in Argentina in the 19th century as part of a series on the financial crisis in the country back in 2002. Somehow I doubt that China’s intentions are any nobler than Great Britain’s.

The Collapse of Argentina, part one: Railway Imperialism

As the Argentine economic collapse began to deepen, I decided to search for radical or Marxist literature on the country written in English to help me understand the situation better. This proved futile (although I continue to be open to recommendations). Nestor Gorojovsky, an Argentine revolutionary who I have been in touch with on the Internet or by phone for at least five years now, could recommend nothing. (His own efforts at a Marxist overview of Argentine history can be found at: http://www.marxmail.org/archives/january99/argentina.htm.) Not even after posting an inquiry to the H-LatinAmerica list, whose subscribers are exclusively academic specialists, were any recommendations forthcoming.

Taking the bull by the horns, I plan now to fill this gap beginning now with a series of posts based on scholarly material from Columbia University’s library. Although I do plan to review literature on Argentina written in Spanish, most of the source material for my posts will be in English, a language that I am more comfortable with when it comes to higher-level analysis.

My own involvement with Argentina dates back to the mid 1970s when I was drawn into a faction fight within the world Trotskyist movement over political perspectives in Argentina. The two main antagonists in the debate were the late Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s bodyguard at Coyoacan and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, and the late Ernest Mandel, the renowned Belgian economist who was on the executive committee of the International Secretariat. The Americans and their mostly English-speaking followers (I use the word advisedly) backed a Trotskyist group in Argentina that appeared to be implementing their own orthodox approach.

Led by the late Nahuel Moreno, this group participated in trade union struggles, the student movement and opposed the ultraleftist guerrilla formations that were kidnapping North American executives or hijacking trucks in order to dispense meat and other goods in poor neighborhoods like Marxist Robin Hoods. It was one of these groups that the Mandel faction backed. Although they paid lip service to Trotsky, these Argentine guerrillas organized as the PRT/Combatiente were more interested in applying Regis Debray’s foquismo theory to the urban sector.

My role in all this was to battle the Mandel supporters in Houston, Texas who held a near majority in the branch and whose affinity for guerrilla warfare was open to question. Most were disaffected from the SWP leadership, whose alleged “petty-bourgeois” orientation to the student movement was supposedly leading the party to ruin. A couple of years later, the SWP leadership would go completely overboard in a kind of ‘workerist’ orientation to the trade unions, thus robbing the dissidents of their raison d’etre. By the time this turn had taken place, the SWP and the Fourth International had parted ways. As a local leader of the anti-Mandel faction, I had the opportunity to spend long hours in discussion with Argentine co-thinkers who visited Houston to give reports for our faction. Security was extremely tight in those days and I had to check my 1968 Dodge Dart for bombs before driving any of them to a public engagement.

During that intense struggle, I gained a deep appreciation for the Argentine people, their culture and their revolutionary will. Although I grieve to see their personal suffering today, I am inspired to see them acting collectively for a better country and world. One hopes that their heroic example can begin to erode the “TINA” mood that has affected wide sections of the left since 1990.

In this first post, I want to address the question of Argentina’s “golden age”, a notion that you can find in many left publications or on the Internet. In this version of Argentine history, the country is seen as an exception to the rest of Latin America where conventional notions of “imperialism” and “dependency” might not apply.

For example, British state capitalist theoretician Chris Harman writes:

Argentina is an industrial country, with a higher proportion of its workforce in industry than in Britain. It’s also a country where working people have, within living memory, experienced living standards close to west European levels. It was known as the ‘granary of the world’ at the beginning of the 20th century, with an economy very much like that of Australia, New Zealand or Canada, centred the massive production of foodstuffs on giant capitalist farms for the world market. Relatively high wages made it a magnet for millions of immigrants from Italy and Spain who brought traditions of industrial militancy with them.

Brad DeLong, an economist who held a post in the Clinton administration and who is a ubiquitous figure on leftwing electronic mailing lists, wrote the following on Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L):

As I said quite a while ago, Argentina was a first world country–like Canada, Australia, or New Zealand–up until the 1950s. Arguments that development possibilities were constrained by relative backwardness may work elsewhere: they don’t make *any* sense for Argentina.

If views like these are meant to support a kind of Argentine exception to the Leninist concept of imperialism or its subsequent elaborations such as the Baran-Sweezy theory of monopoly capitalism, they are mistaken. They would fail to see Argentina’s role in the world capitalist system, which–despite favorable moments–has been that of victim of imperialism. Comparisons with the USA, Canada, etc. are specious, even if in a given year income or other statistics were comparable. The *structural* questions are far more important for understanding Argentina. Despite the presence of European immigrants, industrialization, national independence, the lack of feudal-like latifundias, etc., Argentina had much more in common with direct colonies in the 19th century like India.

Specifically, one of the main factors that led to Argentine dependency was its reliance on British capital and expertise for the construction of railways in the 19th century. Just as was the case in India, these steam-driven showplaces of modernization did nothing but drain the country of capital and force it into a secondary role in the world economy.

If one is a Marx “literalist,” there can obviously be a lot of confusion about the introduction of railways into Argentina or India, especially when Marx wrote:

I know that the English millocracy intend to endow India with railways with the exclusive view of extracting at diminished expense the cotton and other raw materials for their manufactures. But when you have once introduced machinery into locomotion of a country, which possesses iron and coals, you are unable to withhold it from its fabrication. You cannot maintain a net of railways over immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways. The railways system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry.” (“The Future Results of British Rule in India,” NY Daily Tribune, Aug. 8, 1853)

In contrast to these early hopeful writings, before Marxism had developed an understanding of the negative role of imperialism, the historical record demonstrates that foreign owned railways did not lead dependent countries to become anything like the those of the investors, engineers and builders from the core. Rather than serving as a catalyst for Argentine industry, they did nothing except enrich British finance capital, the nefarious Barings Bank in particular. For a scholarly treatment of this subject, we can turn to Alejandro Bendaña’s 1979 PhD dissertation “British Capital and Argentine Dependence 1816-1914”. (Bendaña was a senior level Sandinista official who served as ‘responsable’ with Tecnica, the volunteer organization I was involved with in the 1980s. He continues to participate in the radical movement, nowadays with the Center for International Studies in Managua and the Jubilee Campaign against 3rd world debt.)

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.

In my next post, I will take up the question of Juan Perón and his legacy.

September 28, 2015

The Shawangunk Ridge

Filed under: Catskills — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

When I was 12 years old or so, my parents moved into a new house on Maple Avenue in Woodridge, a tiny village in Sullivan County, NY that had a jaw-dropping view of the Shawangunk Mountains from our living room window. More properly known as the Shawangunk Ridge, it was close to the town of Ellenville about 10 miles from our village as this map indicates. Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 12.20.24 PM

Within a year after we moved in, my father planted a row of pine trees at the edge of our back yard that within 5 years or so blocked the view. His motivation for planting the trees was to create a windbreak that would conceivably cut fuel costs. All I know is that it robbed our family of a de facto work of art framed by our rear window. As it turns out, nature would have accomplished the same goal as my father because not long after his trees reached their vista-robbing height, the trees beyond our house also began blocking the view as well.

When I was young enough to travel by bus to NYC on my own, usually to buy classical records at Sam Goody, there was no Quickway aka the new Route 17. We took what is now known as Old Route 17, a road that would never be able to handle the crush of summertime vacationers coming up to the Catskills but that was much more fun for a youngster. It had a roadside restaurant called the Red Apple that had the best hamburgers and French fries I ever had back then. But the high point for me was looking out the window between Wurtsboro and Bloomingburg to see the Shawangunk Ridge on the horizon.

Old Route 17 between Wurtsboro and Bloomingburg has been redesignated as County Road 171 as seen in the map below.

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This month I went up to Sullivan County to film that exact view but just as was the case with my back yard, trees had reached a height that blocked the view from the 171 county road. Determined to include it in a video I am working on, I drove up a road off of 171 called High View Terrace that towered over the trees and gave me an unblocked view of the Shawangunk Ridge that was so dear to me. A woman who owned a house at the top of the road generously allowed me to film from her back yard.

I also went over to Ellenville and drove up on Route 52 that wended its way along the Shawangunk Ridge. From the high point on 52, I filmed the mountain range that the bus traveled along toward NYC. You can even see the same building with a white roof in the valley below from both video clips.

Finally there is a clip from the Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne that faced the Shawangunk Ridge from the same direction as my house. I only discovered this view as an accident. I wanted to include one of the ashrams that now operate from former Jewish resort hotels and this place had one of the finest views in the area to my amazement.

The three clips are seen below:

The word Shawangunk was a Dutch transliteration of the Munsee Lenape word Shawankunk, which meant “in the smoky air”, a reference to the mist that blanketed the mountains and that is in clear evidence from the scorching heat of a few weeks ago when the first two video clips were shot.

Wikipedia reports that Lenape language scholar Raymond Whritenour believes that the name “derives from the burning of a Munsee fort by the Dutch at the eastern base of the ridge in 1663 (a massacre ending the Second Esopus War)”. I am not inclined to make edits to Wikipedia but the idea of a Munsee fort is absurd. That is like referring to the American cavalry burning down Lakota teepees and later on describing it as an attack on a fort.

It should be mentioned that the British who had absorbed Dutch holdings in the late 17th century drove the Munsees from their homeland along the Shawangunk Ridge. Unlike the Esopus tribe, the Munsees had not fought against the Dutch who were actually encroaching on Esopus farmland. (They were not exactly hunter and gatherers apparently.)

Driven from NY, most Munsees ended up in Wisconsin hence giving the city of Muncie its names. I had occasion to write about this ethnic cleansing in a CounterPunch magazine article on Indian gambling casinos. As part of a deal made with tribes, Governor Cuomo gave the green light to the Munsees to open one up in Sullivan County even though they were in Wisconsin. Their struggle to be compensated for the historic losses is an ongoing one as is the case with all indigenous peoples.

From my article:

Unlike the Pequots who built their casino on reservation land in Connecticut, the Munsees were based in Wisconsin. This would lead one to ask what their connection to New York was. Were they acting cynically like Chief Doug Smith? [A casino boss stereotyped in a “Sopranos” episode.] In 2011, the Department of the Interior rescinded a 2008 rule adopted by the Bush administration blocking the opening of a casino beyond commuting distance from a reservation. It was only natural that the Munsees would take advantage of their roots in New York State.

Like many other American cities, rivers and mountain ranges bequeathed with indigenous names, Muncie, Indiana owes its to the Munsees. Wikipedia states:

The area was first settled in the 1770s by the Lenape people, who had been transported from their tribal lands in the Mid-Atlantic region (all of New Jersey plus southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware) to Ohio and eastern Indiana.

You’ll notice the use of the passive voice “had been trans- ported”, a tendency often found in prose anxious to shirk responsibility. The Lenapes, including the Munsee, were not exactly “transported”—they were expelled, mostly in the 19th century. White settlers bought the land from beneath their feet and drove them westward, first from New York and then from Ohio. As they moved toward Wisconsin and finally to Oklahoma, they left their traces along a trail of tears, including Muncie.

In addition to having their roots in New York, the Munsees have the added distinction of giving Manhattan its name. Likely the Lenape tribe that the settlers encountered was the Munsees, who called the island “Mannahattanink,” the word for “place of general intoxication” according to Mike Wallace—the Marxist co-author of Gotham, not the television personality of the Indian-baiting 60 Minutes. In describing Manhattan as a “place of general intoxication”, the Munsees certainly demonstrated a grasp of the fine art of futurology.

September 25, 2015

The economic theory and policies of Swedish social democracy

Filed under: Sweden — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

Knut Wicksell: the father of Swedish social democratic economic policies and an influence on Mises and Hayek as well.

(This is the eighth in a series of articles on “the Swedish model”. Part one is here. It is an introduction that relates Swedish socialism to Bismarck’s reforms. Part two is here. It is about the persecution of the Samis. Part three is here. It deals with Sweden and the “scramble for Africa”. Part four took up the Myrdal enthusiasm for eugenics. Part five deals with Sweden’s economic partnership with Hitler. Part six covers the social pact that labor and capital agreed upon in 1938. Part seven addressed the question of “Who Rules Sweden”.)

Trying to understand the evolution of the economic theories underlying Swedish social democracy is no easy task. There is not only a dearth of English-language material but in Swedish as well. In “Seven Figures in the History of Swedish Economic Thought”, a specialized text on some of the leading economists associated with the “Swedish model”, author Mats Lundahl refers to their output as “unknown” or “forgotten”.

If the “Chicago School” summons up images of Milton Friedman consulting with Pinochet, what does the “Stockholm School of Economics” evoke? Founded in 1909 as a business school largely from donations by Knut Wallenberg, it was intended to churn out experts who could help Sweden modernize its economy and develop international trade. The Wallenbergs were the Rockefellers of Sweden and well equipped to shape the doctrines that would govern the nation’s future. As it turns out, the Rockefeller Foundation had considerable interest in Sweden’s politics as well, donating large sums to set up a Social Science think-tank under the jurisdiction of the University of Stockholm that would study the impact of wage levels in the labor market among other things. Among the earliest benefactors of Rockefeller funding was Gunnar Myrdal, a Stockholm School graduate who would later on be referred to the Carnegie Foundation for the funding he needed to write “American Dilemma”, widely considered a seminal work on civil rights.

So how did Sweden’s social democracy get hooked up with a business school funded by Sweden’s most powerful capitalist dynasty?

In a way this was inevitable given the social democracy’s ideological drift that began in the 1880s and deepened over the decades. It can best be described as the Swedish version of Eduard Bernstein but unconstrained by any kind of left opposition in the party such as existed in Germany.

One of the key departures from classical Marxism was rejection of the labor theory of value. Party theoreticians became seduced by the theories of Eugen Böhm von Bawerk, who was arguably the first economist to challenge the core beliefs of Marxism on the nature of capitalist exploitation.

As it turns out, the economist who is considered the ideological progenitor of the Stockholm School was one Knut Wicksell, who like Böhm-Bawerk took aim at the labor theory of value. It is of some note that Bohm-Bawerk is considered the father of the Austrian school of economics that includes Mises and Hayek. If Wicksell was an acolyte of Bohm-Bawerk, how did he end up influencing the likes of Gunnar Myrdal who is one of the 20th century’s iconic liberal figures? Furthermore, if the Stockholm School was indeed a pioneer of the kind of economic policies associated with John Maynard Keynes, even to the point of beating him to the punch, how do you explain the odd admixture of neoclassical economics and 20th century liberalism?

Wicksell was as much of an influence on the Austrians as Bohm-Bawerk. If you go to the Mises wiki, you will find a page that pays tribute to Wicksell as a major contributor to their business cycle theories. Since much of Wicksell’s writings involve very technical analysis of interest rates and credit allocation, it is not that hard to understand why he would be of use to reactionaries like Mises.

But the more interesting question is to what degree Wicksell’s neo-Malthusian views that were put forward largely in non-academic writings had an influence on subsequent social democratic policies, especially forced sterilization.

In his chapters on Wicksell, Lundahl finds those writings to be more important than the technical price, interest rate and credit analysis. In lectures to his students at Uppsala University, Wicksell dwelled at length on the vices of the lower class such as alcoholism and prostitution. He was also concerned about overpopulation, thinking that technological breakthroughs could never keep pace with population growth. Much of his writing is focused on determining an “optimum population”. While there is no particular recommendation on the need for forced sterilization, you have to wonder to what extent his fixation on such matters figured in the state policies that would leave many Roma women sterile.

If Wicksell’s emphasis on the need for market relations to guarantee efficient provision of capital, labor and resources seems at odds with Swedish values, keep in mind that his influence can be felt in the writings of Gunnar Myrdal who on first blush would appear to be the anti-Austrian par excellence.

If a $15 (or better) minimum wage is a demand that resonates with civil rights activists today, it is rather shocking to discover that Myrdal’s take in “American Dilemma” had more in common with Bill O’Reilly’s:

During the ’thirties the danger of being a marginal worker became increased by social legislation intended to improve conditions on the labor market. The dilemma, as viewed from the Negro angle is this: on the one hand, Negroes constitute a disproportionately large number of the workers in the nation who work under imperfect safety rules, in unclean and unhealthy shops, for long hours, and for sweatshop wages; on the other hand, it has largely been the availability of such jobs which has given Negroes any employment at all. As exploitative working conditions are gradually being abolished, this, of course, must benefit Negro workers most, as they have been exploited most—but only if they are allowed to keep their employment. But it has mainly been their willingness to accept low labor standards which has been their protection. When government steps in to regulate labor conditions and to enforce minimum standards, it takes away nearly all that is left of the old labor monopoly in the “Negro jobs.” (emphasis added)

As low wages and sub-standard labor conditions are most prevalent in the South, this danger is mainly restricted to Negro labor in that region. When the jobs are made better, the employer becomes less eager to hire Negroes, and white workers become more eager to take the jobs from the Negroes. (p. 397)

Perhaps the only thing that can be said here is that Myrdal remained committed to neoclassical economics despite his reputation of being some kind of socialist. If supply and demand dictate what Black labor gets, then how can a civil rights movement be built?

You can read a large part of Herbert Aptheker’s critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma” on Google Books. It is a reminder of how good Communists could be when they were ready to go for the jugular:

The bourgeois values of Myrdal are also given quite explicitly. He states that to him the terms good and bad are “defined according to our value premise of placing the general American culture ‘higher.” The same bias is apparent in Myrdal’s choice of the “friends” of the Negro. To him, “the Negro’s friend—or the one who is least unfriendly—is still rather the upper class of white people, the people with economic and social security.” And in another place Myrdal names one of these upper class people, Edgar G. Murphy, “who is distinguished as one of the most sincere friends of the Negro among the conservative-minded old Southerners.” This individual, a leader in the Alabama movement to overthrow Reconstruction government and constitution, felt that so far as the Negro is concerned, “the spirit of the South has been the spirit of kindliness and helpfulness…. The South gives to him the best gift of a civilization to an individual, the opportunity to live industriously and honestly. . . The South, must, of course, secure the supremacy of intelligence and property.” Such, to Myrdal, is “one of the most sincere friends of the Negro.”

To a large extent, Swedish social democratic economic policies rest on the notion of a “third way” in which labor and capital can cooperate with each other and avoid the mutual destruction revolutionary confrontations produce—at least according to theoreticians such as Knut Wicksell, Gunnar Myrdal, et al. But to what extent did the bourgeoisie really agree to a compromise that left both major classes in society on an equal footing? Were the Wallenbergs et al swayed by reason or were there other factors that accounted for the class peace that had dominated in Sweden for so many decades?

Unlike the USA, where the Communists were the largest party on the left, Sweden was social democratic territory. The social democrats were a known quantity to the big bourgeoisie in Sweden who regarded them as pushovers. In 1931 there was a general strike over the killings of strikers and their supporters in Adalen, a struggle led by the CP. It was that general strike that ironically led to the election of the SAP (the social democrats). In the 1920s, the SAP had demonstrated its willingness to avoid “extremism”. In an article titled “Forestalling the Business Veto: Investment Confidence and the Rise of Swedish Social Democracy” that was co-authored by Karen Anderson and Steven Snow that appeared in the March 2003 Social Science Quarterly, they document how willing the SAP was to bow to the bosses’ demands:

 The Social Democrats were historically linked to the unions, from which they derived much political support, but as a party often in government, it felt obliged to reduce the economic losses from labor conflicts. In the 1920s the SAP “repeatedly advocated general interests over and above the struggle of individual groups of workers for better working conditions”. Throughout this period, in fact, the SAP often stood with employers on the issue of wage rates. When the employers said that a wage reduction was unavoidable, the Social Democratic representatives in the unions often supported them. In 1920, for example, in response to a recession and in the face of unions’ appeals, the Social Democratic Minister of Finance declared “The demand for increased wages must cease”. The party was also willing to criticize outbreaks of violence in clashes between workers and police. In several labor disputes, even though the police apparently used excessive force, the SAP proved willing to denounce the tactics of striking workers. “Offenses against existing law must always be condemned,” the SAP Prime Minister argued.

In the 1930s, there was a rising tide of labor strikes in the USA but in Sweden, there was an opposite tendency thanks to the class collaborationism of the SAP as this chart from the Anderson-Snow article indicates:

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 3.08.43 PM

In exchange for a housebroken trade union movement, the SAP was able to provide sizable material benefits to the working class until global competition in the 1980s forced Sweden to rip up the accords it had made with the workers and throw them in the garbage can. That will be the topic of my final article in this series.

Chess as Metaphor

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

More importantly, the game has entered the parlance of political science as a metaphor for the Cold War and its lingering traces with Washington and Moscow pitted against each other. If you Google “Geopolitical Chess Game”, you will encounter 363,000 results. Not surprisingly, Michel Chossudovsky’s Global Research is at the top of the heap, a website that sees every struggle on earth as involving pieces moved about on the board. Pace Chussodovsky, can we say that the white pieces stand for Moscow and the black ones for Washington? It is impossible to determine why the game’s inventors allowed white to move first but a preference for that color springs to mind.

“Pawn Sacrifice”, a film that opened in September and that is playing at middle-brow theaters everywhere, is about as close to the geopolitical metaphor as you are going to get since it is based on the historic showdown between the 29-year old Bobby Fischer and the reigning world champion Boris Spassky, who was six years older. As the title of the film suggests, Fischer was a foot soldier in the Cold War at the time even though he was one with superpowers. Arguably the greatest chess player that ever lived, Fischer had a burning hatred of the Russians based more on their Bill Belichick bending of the rules than anything that mattered to policy-makers in Washington. Indeed, despite the fact that his mother was a Communist Party member, his hostility to her was based not so much on politics but on his generally contrary nature. In an early scene in the film, Fischer, who is in his early teens, throws his mother and her boyfriend out of the house because their lovemaking noises seeping through the thin bedroom walls did not allow him to concentrate on his game.

read full review

September 22, 2015

Israel joins the axis of resistance

Filed under: Palestine,Syria,zionism — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

As I pointed out in my post on Hungary last week, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss had a profound insight into the way we think. Homo sapiens is susceptible to binary oppositions on any number of questions from good and evil to light and darkness. That is probably what explains the lingering appeal of Platonic idealism on the left, most particularly around the question of imperialism versus anti-imperialism.

On one hand you have NATO, the IMF, the EU and the White House—the guys in black hats. And on the other you have the Russian military, the BRICS Development Bank, the Eurasian trading bloc, and the Kremlin—all in white hats. This kind of binary thinking is poorly suited to explaining why a filthy, racist demagogue like Viktor Orban can line up with the Kremlin. If the criterion is opposition to the West, Orban is a “good” leader while Ukraine’s Poroshenko is “evil”.

But the difficulties reach a breaking point when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu, who next to Barack Obama, is the most nefarious politician in the world according to the binary brigade. Just a day ago, I learned that Netanyahu and his top military advisers were making a trip to the Kremlin in order to discuss security concerns with Putin and his warmakers. Generally, this has been reported as the two leaders getting together to address Israel’s concerns that the latest shipment of Russian arms flowing into Syria will not get into the hands of Hezbollah, supposedly Israel’s mortal enemy as well as the continuing presence of Iranian troops.

The “anti-imperialists” have told us over and over that Israel is using the jihadists as a battering ram against Syria, which is supposedly the best friend of the Palestinians in the region. Every few months there is a new talking point like in June when wounded al-Nusra front “takfiri” were alleged to being transported to Israeli hospitals and returned afterwards to the Golan Heights battlefields after a full recovery. It did not matter to the Baathist amen corner that none of this could be documented.

Asa Winstanley, one of the Assadiist tools who write for Jacobin, went so far as to tell its readers that Israel was for an ISIS victory in the region:

Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, stated in an interview almost a year ago that Israel wants to “let the Sunni evil prevail” over the greater “evil” of Iran and its regional proxies. Speaking in the context of a massacre of Iraqi soldiers, he seemed to argue that Israel should allow the “Islamic State” to win.

Oren isn’t alone among the Israeli elite. Gilad Sharon — the son of the late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who once called for Israel to “flatten all of Gaza” — stated last month that Israel may actually prefer the “Islamic State” terror group (whose origins lie with the al-Qaeda in Iraq group) to Assad and its Hezbollah and Iranian allies.

Now that Israel is coordinating intervention in Syria with Russia, people like Asa Winstanley will have a major job on their hands explaining this but I assume that he is cynical enough to justify anything. Such people seem to be channeling the CPUSA’s support for the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact. That, of course, is what happens when you are reduced to cheap propaganda rather than radical journalism of the John Reed variety.

What makes a political pirouette all the more difficult for Winstanley and company is Israel’s apparent acceptance of the ongoing Russian-American-Syrian bombing campaign against ISIS, one that Russia and Israel have already begun coordinating as the Jerusalem Post reports:

In Russia, Eisenkot met with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Vasilevich Gerasimov – the first time chiefs of staff from Russia and Israel held a direct meeting. Eisenkot also participated in part of the meeting held between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Afterward, the two sides agreed to set up a joint working group led by the deputy chiefs of staff from each country. The first meeting will occur in two weeks, and the location will be decided in the coming days.

“It will coordinate air, naval, and the electromagnetic arenas,” the source said. The full composition of the working group has not yet been determined, he added.

“Everything will be raised there. The meetings in Russia were held in a good atmosphere,” the senior source said.

Nice to hear that there was a good atmosphere. I can just see the military brass from each side sharing vodka and pickled herring.

Haaretz, the liberal Zionist newspaper that tends to be less ideological than the Likudist press in Israel, had a shrewd assessment of the Netanyahu-Putin powwow:

And although Netanyahu only last week said “commentators” were wrong when they warned of a collapse of ties between Israel and the United States in light of the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu’s current visit to Moscow could be seen as an Israeli jab at Washington. The visit seems to reflect Netanyahu’s lack of faith in the ability or the intent of the United States to protect Israel’s security interests.

The visit cannot be considered good news in Washington, which led a campaign of condemnation and sanctions against Moscow over its involvement in the war in Ukraine last summer. (Israel did not take a position on that conflict and was duly rewarded by Russia which issued a moderate response to Israel’s actions in the war on Gaza shortly thereafter.)

The reference to Gaza is likely tied to Russian opposition to the Goldstone Report being taken up by the Security Council in 2009, a document that charged Israel with war crimes. Russia had voted to approve the report in the Human Rights Committee of the UN but shrewdly decided that relations with Israel should not be compromised by putting teeth into a report that might have led to Netanyahu and company suffering the same fate as Milosevic. In explaining their refusal to take up the Goldstone Report on the Security Council, the Russians made that connection clear:

Many of the recommendations of the report, including criticisms of the actions of Hamas-controlled security forces, as well as provisions relating to the observance of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in general, appear justified. However, a number of proposals in the document go beyond the scope of the mission. This applies particularly to the recommendations addressed to the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court and the call upon states to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes during the conflict in Gaza, under universal jurisdiction.

We oppose the referral of the report to the UN Security Council. We believe that it is the UN Human Rights Council that constitutes the platform in the format which this report should be considered. Nor do we believe it is advisable to draw international judicial bodies into the investigation.

So Benjamin Netanyahu’s worse fears were averted. There was no need to hire a lawyer to defend him against war crimes even if Ramsey Clark were still available. Bully for the most fearsome enemy of the West on the BRICS front.

So when did Russia make a “turn” toward Israel disavowing the “anti-imperialist” stance that had endeared it to people like Mike Whitney and Andre Vltchek? Unless you are victim to your own propaganda, the evidence was there from the beginning that the Kremlin considered Israel its good friend.

Keep in mind that Russia and Israel share a loathing for what they call Islamic jihadists. In 2000 when Russia was using the same scorched earth military tactics and the same “war on terrorism” rhetoric now being used in Syria, Israel’s foreign minister, the ultrarightist Natan Sharansky, stood behind Putin, comparing his struggle with Israel’s against the Palestinians. The Washington Post editorialized on the Russian-Israeli commonality of interests on April 29, 2002:

Ever since Sept. 11, Putin and Sharon have tried to convince the world that the Muslim national movements seeking to end the military occupations by Russia of Chechnya, and by Israel of the West Bank and Gaza, are indistinguishable from the terrorists of Osama bin Laden and deserve the same treatment. Both have had some luck — Sharon seems to have persuaded most of Congress and half of the Bush administration. But as a season of summits among Russia, the United States and Europe approaches, only Putin seems to have successfully merged the war on terrorism with his own scorched-earth assault on national sovereignty.

Finally, we must say something about whether Israel ever perceived Syria as a mortal threat to its interests, to the point that Asa Winstanley’s ravings could make sense.

Early on Israel took the position that Assad was the “lesser evil”, referring to him as “the devil you know” as opposed to the rebels who were an unknown quantity. As the war dragged on, however, Israel began to see the wisdom of imperialist intervention against ISIS and al-Nusra whether from the White House or the Kremlin.

A more important question is how Syria viewed Israel and the Palestinians. Despite Baathist rhetoric about solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, there is at least one Palestinian who does not buy the bullshit. I refer you to Tariq Al-Faluji, a Palestinian college student who describes himself as “raised to stand up for what’s right, whether it is in Palestine, Syria, Bahrain, or anywhere in the Arab World.” In an April 28, 2013 article for “Beyond Compromise”, he addressed the problem of Palestinian support for the Assad head-on:

First of all, the Assad family is no friend of Palestine. Before Hafez even became president of Syria, he was a commander of the Syrian Air Force. In 1966, when Salah Jadid took over leadership in Syria in a military coup, he was appointed a Defense Minister, effectively becoming the country’s second in command. In 1970, in the wake of Black September, Syria sided with the Palestinians, sending in armored divisions into Jordan. This marks the first occasion of Assad betraying the Palestinians. As commander of the Air Force, he refused to provide the air cover necessary for the Syrian aid to reach the Palestinians. Because of this, the Syrian forces were re-routed and the Palestinians suffered the consequences of losing. Assad used this particular defeat to discredit Jadid and take over via military coup.

That particular instant is not the first occasion and is certainly not the last. In 1976, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, the Syrian army aided the Phalangist militia in besieging the Palestinian Tel Al-Zaatar refugee camp in Lebanon. After the Syrians and their Lebanese allies shelled the camp, 3000 Palestinians died. The Syrian army was instrumental in the siege of Palestinian refugee camps by the Amal movement, which left several thousand Palestinians dead. The Syrian role in the Lebanese Civil War would lead to many more Palestinian deaths. It should be telling of the nature of the Assad Regime; psychopathic killers with no friends.

Not to mention, Syria has been a perfect “enemy” to Israel for decades. Since 1973, the Syrian army has fired an illustrious zero bullets into Israel. Even with their territory occupied, they remained quiet even when Israeli planes went as far as flying over Assad’s palace in 2006. This illusion that the Syrian regime is the only regime fighting Israel is simply that, an illusion. There is no question that Assad is not by any means a friend of the Palestinian people.

Additionally, what is happening in Syria is a crime against humanity. Thousands are dying, the country is destroyed beyond repair, and millions are refugees. Which is why it is enraging to find Palestinians who support Assad. As a people, we Palestinians know exactly what it is like to be killed in the thousands, lose our country, and have to live our lives as refugees. A Palestinian who can’t see the parallels between what Israel did to Palestinians and what Assad is doing to his own people is simply blind.

If we as a people can be comfortable with the idea that Assad can get away with the murder of his people, then our 65 years under occupation have taught us nothing. Palestinians should be at the forefront of support for any people who are facing killing, forced to leave their country, and being repressed in the most brutal ways possible. The hypocrisy of a Palestinian who spends hours talking about the injustice in Israeli jails while simultaneously supporting a regime that has kept tens of thousands in much worse imprisonment conditions is astounding. How can we be taken seriously as advocates of freedom when we only advocate it when it suits our own purposes? How can anyone talk about Israel killing Palestinians while accepting and condoning the killing of Syrians? The answer is simple. Those two positions simply cannot coexist without hypocrisy.

I imagine sympathy for such an analysis among Palestinians explains why 315 of their number have been tortured to death in Syrian prisons to this point. It is an abomination that the Baathist amen corner tries to turn such murdering beasts into “anti-imperialist” heroes.

September 20, 2015

Open Borders

Filed under: cults,immigration,Syria — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm


In the latest Militant newspaper, the organ of the infinitesimally small and monumentally bizarre SWP, there’s a swipe at a position defended in last week’s edition:

The labor officialdom in the United States and the different capitalist countries in Europe have refused to carry out the fight for working-class unity over decades, instead joining with each of their bosses’ governments in advancing a nationalist and protectionist course. Workers everywhere have to chart a new road forward.

It’s different than a general call to “open the borders,” as an editorial in last week’s Militant put forward. That’s a utopian demand, and, if adopted under capitalist rule, would lead to increased competition among workers, unemployment, lower wages and social misery.

This is not the first time such a correction has been made. Usually it can be attributed to Jack Barnes reversing himself on previously held positions. This never happened when I was in the SWP in the 1960s and 70s and probably reflects the descent of this sect into ever more increasingly uncharted waters with an unstable cult figure at the helm.

As it turns out, this is not the only cult-sect that is opposed to open borders because it is “utopian”. The Spartacist League that SWP’ers used to laugh at for its weirdness issued a reply to a reader’s letter that sounds like it could be an editorial in the Militant at this point:

The call to “open the borders” and its variants are hopelessly utopian. The modern nation-state arose as a vehicle for the development of capitalism and will remain the basis for the organization of the capitalist economy until the world capitalist order is shattered through a series of workers revolutions. Policing its borders is vital to the very existence of the capitalist state power. Moreover, “open the borders” can have a reactionary content, from advancing imperialist economic penetration of dependent countries to obliterating the right to national self-determination.

This, of course, is an odd use of the term “utopian”, which in Marxist theory generally refers to beliefs that small-scale experiments in collective ownership can lead to socialism. It would be clearer if the two sects would use the word “unrealistic” instead of “utopian” to avoid confusion. But then again, that would lead to some interesting questions about other demands that cannot be realized under capitalism. Perhaps there is something deeply conservative about this hostility to open borders even though the head men at the SWP and Spartacist League love to throw the ultraleft verbiage around.

If you take the trouble to Google “Open borders” on the Militant website, you’ll see that the group favored it in the past. Last week’s Militant erred only by assuming that the party line was in force until it would be changed by the democratic vote of the party at the next convention. Since the cult operates on the whim of the Dear Leader nowadays, the line can be changed any time he decides to change it. Who needs democracy when the group is led by the Lenin of today?

There were 58 results on a search for “open borders” on the Militant and all of them except for the one cited above defend them. For example, the Swedish group that is part of the SWP’s global network ran an election campaign that made such a demand.

In 2010, when I was still a part of the Swans Magazine collective, I wrote an article on the passport system for a special issue on immigration. I reproduce it below in the hope that people get a better idea of where Marxists stand on this issue.

Special Issue on Immigration


A History Of The Passport System

(Swans – October 4, 2010)   When I learned about the decision by the good folks who publish Swans that they intended to produce a special issue on immigration, I saw this as an opportunity to investigate the origins of the passport and visa system — something I regarded as a recent phenomenon. After reading John Torpey’s very useful The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, I was disappointed to discover that such documents have been around for a very long time in one form or another. Upon further reflection, I might have realized that this was the case since state formations — be they feudal, capitalist, or bureaucratic socialist — have been around for over a millennium. The only exception to this rule has been primitive communal societies or nomadic herders. Ironically, it will be up to an aroused and enlightened humanity to reintroduce communal social forms but based on advanced technology to finally put an end to the dungeon that such papers represent.

It is a sign of how little we have progressed that the Roma being persecuted across Europe today for their refusal to abide by the norms of “citizenship” were being persecuted for the same refusal in the 16th century. A police ordinance from 1548 Prussia stipulated that “gypsies and vagabonds” (Landstreicher) had to be issued passes to travel within the feudal state. Furthermore, in all feudal entities the lower classes needed traveling papers, a way of tying a serf to his lord’s manor.

Despite Britain’s reputation for being freer and more “enlightened,” things were not much different. A 1381 statute prevented anybody but aristocrats from leaving the kingdom. (A point on terminology: passports are required to leave a country; visas are needed to enter one.) Britain also had the same determination to keep the peasant tied to his master’s land. A member of the lower classes could migrate from one part of the kingdom to another only if he had a certificate issued by a court official or a cleric.

While Czar Peter the Great had the reputation of being a “Westernizing” progressive, the reality on the ground for the average Russian was one of slavery to documents. Since Peter had the ambition to create a large and powerful army, it was necessary to put obstacles in the way of a peasant who sought to flee this oppressive “duty.” A 1719 edict required someone moving from one village to another to have the proper papers. It is not difficult to understand why Stalin would reintroduce such restrictions during the 1930s since in many ways his regime was a mixture of Czarist autocracy and state planning.

The first blow delivered to such feudal encumbrances was the great French Revolution of 1789, or at least that was the hope. A delegate to the Estates General pleaded that each citizen “must be free to move about or to come, within and outside the Kingdom, without permissions, passports, or other formalities that end to hamper the liberty of its citizens…” Such hopes were in vain since the bourgeois republic reflecting the class interests of those who made it retained passports as a means of controlling the poor who were pouring into Paris.

It was not just the poor who were kept on a tight leash. When King Louis XVI was caught trying to flee the country disguised as a valet, the republicans cracked down. Anybody trying to flee the country without authorization would be subject to arrest, thus making the sublime sentiments of the conclusion of Humphrey Bogart’s Casablanca ring a bit hollow.

Worries over counter-revolution did not only stem from flights from the country. There was also a consensus that foreigners might find their way into France harboring subversive ideas. Subversive in this context, it should be added, meant a belief in the divine rights of Kings. France eventually resolved this problem by abolishing internal passports — in deference to the hopes of the democratically minded and a burgeoning capitalist class in need of “free” labor while institutionalizing them at the border. Henceforth, the concept of “foreigner” would be enshrined in the piece of paper that defined one in relationship to the bourgeois republic.

By and large, the 19th century was marked by a more permissive attitude toward the right to travel without restriction since a capitalist industrial revolution would not be possible without mobile pools of labor, in the same way that California agribusiness relies on an ample supply of Mexican stoop labor today.

Prussia, a state that symbolized absolutism, enacted legislation in 1817 that permitted its citizens to “travel freely and unhindered” without papers, but only within its borders. Leaving the country without a passport was strictly verboten, however.

If Prussia’s restrictions mirrored its inability to break cleanly with the feudal system, how does Britain — an exemplar of liberal free trade — stack up by comparison? As was always the case with Britain, the right to emigrate was joined at the hip to the capitalist economy. An economic downturn in the period 1810 to 1820 prompted bread riots by the poor. In face of such troubles, the ruling class decided to relax restrictions. That explains the enormous migration to Australia and other former colonies that would follow.

Changing economic circumstances in the German states (the country had not yet unified) also led to increased mobility by the 1850s. Liberal-minded industrialists insisted on the right of labor to move freely within and outside the country. This need was felt especially keenly in cases where foreign workers could be used to break strikes. However, the impulse to greater freedoms was countered by traditional German social structures, especially strong in Prussia.

Things came to a head in 1867 when the Reichstag would debate a sweeping legislation that would go the furthest in removing restrictions. If passed, both citizens and foreigners would be allowed to travel to the states within the North German Confederation that included Prussia as well as more economically developed entities.

While the motive of bourgeois politicians was purely to secure cheap labor, the working class representatives to the Reichstag were not prejudiced against legislation that would grant workers more freedom. Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of Rosa Luxemburg’s close collaborator Karl Liebknecht, made a clarion call in support of the bill.

The fact that some sectors of the capitalist class favor labor mobility today as a way to undermine trade unions in places like the United States and France, just as was the case in Germany in the 1860s, should not stand in the way of our call for freedom of movement.

Lenin, who counted himself as a disciple of the German Social Democracy led by Wilhelm and Karl Liebknecht, was emphatic on this. In a 1913 article titled Capitalism and Workers’ Immigration, he wrote:

Capitalism has given rise to a special form of migration of nations. The rapidly developing industrial countries, introducing machinery on a large scale and ousting the backward countries from the world market, raise wages at home above the average rate and thus attract workers from the backward countries.

Hundreds of thousands of workers thus wander hundreds and thousands of versts. Advanced capitalism drags them forcibly into its orbit, tears them out of the backwoods in which they live, makes them participants in the world-historical movement, and brings them face to face with the powerful, united, international class of factory owners.

There can be no doubt that dire poverty alone compels people to abandon their native land, and that the capitalists exploit the immigrant workers in the most shameless manner. But only reactionaries can shut their eyes to the progressive significance of this modern migration of nations. Emancipation from the yoke of capital is impossible without the further development of capitalism, and without the class struggle that is based on it. And it is into this struggle that capitalism is drawing the masses of the working people of the whole world, breaking down the musty, fusty habits of local life, breaking down national barriers and prejudices, uniting workers from all countries in huge factories and mines in America, Germany, and so forth.
(Source: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/oct/29.htm)

If anything, Lenin’s observations ring truer than ever. Globalization and advanced communications technology have broken down “national barriers” as anybody who has ever made a call to get technical support from Dell Computers would attest.

Unfortunately, labor solidarity has not kept pace with bourgeois solidarity that forges ahead with trade agreements like NAFTA and the WTO. In the coming decades, labor will either face up to the task of realizing the old slogan of “workers of the world unite” or else it will fall backwards into greater and greater restrictions of the sort that typified feudal Europe. There is no turning back.

Did the West ignore a Russian offer for Assad to step down as President?

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:56 pm


by Brian Slocock

ChurkinA story published in the Guardian on 16 September entitled “West ‘ignored Russian offer for Assad to step down as President’” has evoked considerable excitement on both sides of the Atlantic. The story is based on a claim by former Finnish President and UN Diplomat Martti Ahtisaari that the West failed to respond to an overture made in February 2012 by Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. According to Ahtisaari, Churkin, in a private conversation suggested a means for resolving the Syrian crisis:

He said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’ “He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

The Guardian seems to have felt the need to “sex…

View original post 1,383 more words

September 19, 2015

Baathist truthers

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

In the course of responding to the amen corner for the past couple of weeks over the Syrian refugee crisis, it dawned on me that it is not only an ethical lapse that we are dealing with but a theoretical one as well. Largely as a function of its narrow focus on US foreign policy and the sort of revelations we associate with Seymour Hersh type investigative reporting, Wikileaks, etc., there is zero interest in how Marxism can relate to events taking place within Syria. The country becomes a kind of black box where reductionism is taken to such an extreme degree that everything is bracketed out except what the CIA or other Western imperialist agencies are up to. Tunnel vision is perfectly suited to Baathist state terrorism.

When the protests erupted in Syria in 2011, I tried to get as much information as possible about the social and economic conditions that spurred people into action. Although I disagreed with Jadaliyya’s Bassam Haddad on some questions, I found his analysis of the agrarian crisis most useful, especially “The Syrian Regime’s Business Backbone” that appeared in the Spring 2012 Middle East Report. It was a reminder that the Baathist state was socialist in name only:

By the late 1990s, the business community that the Asads had created in their own image had transformed Syria from a semi-socialist state into a crony capitalist state par excellence. The economic liberalization that started in 1991 had redounded heavily to the benefit of tycoons who had ties to the state or those who partnered with state officials. The private sector outgrew the public sector, but the most affluent members of the private sector were state officials, politicians and their relatives. The economic growth registered in the mid-1990s was mostly a short-lived bump in consumption, as evidenced by the slump at the end of the century. Growth rates that had been 5-7 percent fell to 1-2 percent from 1997 to 2000 and beyond.

But within the first month of the protests, others were searching for a CIA connection since Syria was perceived as an ally of Russia, Venezuela, Cuba and Iran—four countries that to varying degrees represented an “anti-imperialist” pole of attraction. When I kept urging one old friend to look at websites that took the side of the anti-Assad revolt, he told me that he did not have time for that. Meanwhile, he was obviously keeping track of what Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Tariq Ali were writing with no problem. In essence, what you had was a total refusal to examine all sides of a political question because “our obligations were to oppose imperialism”. Basically it was the same kind of intellectual laziness and lack of backbone that allowed most of the left to defend the Moscow Trials in the late 1930s.

As the years and bloodletting wore on, a “truther” mentality set in that was not that different from the “911” type. “False flags” were constantly being referred to as if the USA was planning to invade Syria and impose a sectarian Sunni state in the same way that George W. Bush imposed a sectarian Shiite state in Iraq. Blaming Assad for the Sarin gas attack in East Ghouta was like the WMD propaganda campaign in 2002. Or like 911 since Dubya supposedly needed that as a casus belli.

Even today, you have warnings about “regime change” in places like WSWS.org no matter what Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly I. Churkin stated: “This is something we share now with the U.S. Government: They don’t want the Assad Government to fail. They want to fight ISIL in a way that won’t harm the Syrian government.”

Instead of examining class relations, the left became amateur sleuths anxious to prove once and for all that the USA has been using Syrian rebels as puppets to bring down the Assad dictatorship. Influenced by the musings of ex-CIA agents such as Ray McGovern, there was a search for incriminating evidence that would allow the scales to fall from the public’s eyes and rouse it to pressure politicians to end the “war on Syria”. If only they knew. The dedication to this cause is almost as impressive as what you get from those arguing that burning jet fuel was incapable of bringing down the WTC.

Just as is the case with 911 truthers, the Baathist left shares links to the same articles that get repeated endlessly in places like Jacobin, Mint Press, DissidentVoice or Information Clearing House. I would venture to guess that the items reviewed below have been recycled hundreds of times already by the Baathist left and there is no sign that their shelf life will expire any time soon. And to what end? To justify the killing of countless more Syrians. And how is this possible? The answer: you have to objectify and dehumanize human beings, the function of a left gone mad. As a political response to mass murder, it is exactly the same as how most Israelis view the destruction of Gaza.

What all of these items below have in common is that they are based on some revelation of a top-secret or nearly top-secret memorandum or diplomatic initiative that proves once and for all that the USA was behind the “war on Syria”. Once they are exposed, they are picked up by a myriad of websites dedicated to the Baathist cause. In some ways, the websites that carry out this task are similar to the hired trolls who work in a basement in Moscow on Putin’s behalf. I am not sure whether doing this kind of work for pay is sleazier than doing it for free.

US refusal to accept a deal that would have removed Assad from office

Three days ago the Guardian reported on the revelation made by former president of Finland Martti Ahtisaari that when the aforementioned Vitaly Churkin proposed a deal three years ago that would have resulted in Assad stepping down in exchange for peace, the USA, Britain and France said no.

Writing for CounterPunch, Peter Lee considered this “an instance of neoliberal ass-covering, as if the Western allies were just waiting for Assad ‘to fall’” while Information Clearing House, a reliably pro-Assad website, reposted the Guardian article with the obvious intention of showing how Putin stood for peace and the West for war. Then there is David Swanson of Lets Try Democracy who concludes: “peace has been carefully avoided at every turn.” (http://davidswanson.org/node/4914)

The only problem is that Churkin was not the ultimate authority on such matters. Much closer to Putin and certainly speaking for him, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated just four months later: “We will not support and cannot support any interference from outside or any imposition of recipes. This also concerns the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”

The other thing that was obviously of zero interest to Peter Lee, David Swanson or Assad’s pals at Information Clearing House was the feelings of the Syrian opposition. Clearly, what the plan entailed was a Yemen type solution in which Assadism without Assad would continue. If you could see things through the eyes of people who had been tortured in Assad’s jails, you could understand why they would resist a solution that left the Syrian army and police intact especially since it had just gone through the ordeal of seeing its nonviolent supporters shot down in the streets by government snipers for the better part of a year. Maybe the protesters didn’t understand that they were CIA puppets and that decrying torture only benefited ExxonMobil and Chase Bank.

One might understand why the rebels are of no consequence to some. As an indistinguishable mass of bearded takfiri inimical to our values of freedom and tolerance, they have to be stopped before they come here and carry out more Charlie Hebdo type attacks. FSA, ISIS, al-Nusra Front—it’s all the same. That’s why it was so beneficial when Patrick Cockburn advised Parliament that jet bombing attacks against the terrorists had to be coordinated with Assad. Can’t you see Christopher Hitchens smiling benignly down from heaven (or up from hell) now that his message to an errant left has finally been vindicated?

Wikileaks regime change memo from 2006

This one is in heavy rotation in all sorts of places, from Global Research to Glenn Greenwald. This State Department had outlined a series of measures that could destabilize the Assadist dictatorship ranging from influencing members of the military to stirring up the Kurds.

What it does not include is any reference to exactly what posed the biggest threat to Assad five years later: a peaceful mass movement calling for democracy and an end to the sort of robbery that characterized the big businesses aligned with the regime, starting with Rami Makhlouf who controlled 60 percent of the Syrian economy.

Nor was there any consideration of a shift in US foreign policy that coincided with the arrival of Barack Obama into the White House in 2008. On March 26, 2009 the New York Times reported:

Only a year ago, this country’s government was being vilified as a dangerous pariah. The United States and its Arab allies mounted a vigorous campaign to isolate Syria, which they accused of sowing chaos and violence throughout the region through its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

It is not just a matter of the Obama administration’s new policy of engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France led the way with a visit here last September. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was said to be furious at the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, welcomed him warmly in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this month. Photographs of the two men smiling and shaking hands have been on the front pages of all the major Arab newspapers, along with frequent headlines about the “Arab reconciliation.”

One might safely assume that if the rabble had not taken to the streets in March of 2011, there would have been a rapid march toward fulfilling the “new policy of engagement” alluded to above. Indeed, even with the death of 225,000 Syrians, the Obama administration has shown an impressive determination to go full speed ahead with a realigned foreign policy that sees Iran and the Baathists as having a common interest in bringing stability to the region.

Judicial Watch release of US Intelligence Report that shows the USA was in cahoots with ISIS

Ever since this document appeared on the rightwing Judicial Watch’s website got the Baathist juices flowing. Seumas Milne, a diehard supporter of the gangsters in Damascus, wrote:

A revealing light on how we got here has now been shone by a recently declassified secret US intelligence report, written in August 2012, which uncannily predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria and an al-Qaida-controlled Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. In stark contrast to western claims at the time, the Defense Intelligence Agency document identifies al-Qaida in Iraq (which became Isis) and fellow Salafists as the “major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” – and states that “western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey” were supporting the opposition’s efforts to take control of eastern Syria.

(Milne was joined by David Mizner, a pinhead over at Jacobin who wrote essentially the same article, as is common practice in such circles. Jacobins Mizner, Patrick Higgins, and Max Ajl are part of a Twitter network that includes the imbeciles who organized the “Zizek must be destroyed” panel discussion at the Left Forum two years ago. If they organize something like this again, maybe they can invite Bhaskar Sunkara to speak although that might not sit well with fellow editor Sebastian Budgeon whose admiration for Zizek is boundless.)

As is universally true when dingbats like Milne consult such documents to bolster their Baathist talking points, they omit anything that would undermine their case. Do they think that people lack the ability to read critically? It is astonishing that a reputable paper like the Guardian would hire someone who wouldn’t cut the mustard at a Murdoch newspaper at least on the basis of professionalism. Milne says that the Intelligence Report “effectively welcomes” the growth of a formation like ISIS. But the concluding paragraph of the report states:



What could possibly have allowed Milne to describe anything like this as “effectively” welcoming the emergence of ISIS? Do the words “Grave Danger” mean something different to him than they do to the average person? Where is George Orwell when we need him to unravel such doublethink when “effectively welcome” and “a grave danger” go together?

Since the report was only a draft and heavily redacted, it is open to different interpretations. If ISIS were such a “grave danger”, why would “the west” support it? It does state that Qatar, Turkey and “the west” support the opposition but if so, why does it conclude with a dire warning about the jihadist threat to Iraq and Western interests?

But that’s the problem you run into when everything turns on a top-secret memo whose author is unnamed and unaccountable. When Seymour Hersh kept referring to his sources inside the intelligence community, there was no way to validate their claims. It was their word against any detractors who came along that found their story to be pure bullshit.

The report also claims that the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the main participants in the armed opposition but this is utter nonsense. A couple of its members were represented in the official Syrian opposition in exile but it has never been a “driving force” as the report asserts.

If you want to read a serious analysis of how ISIS came into being, I recommend Peter Neumann’s article in the April 2014 London Review of Books, a journal that has published Seymour Hersh, Tariq Ali, Charles Glass, and David Bromwich on Syria. As these four individuals are part of the amen corner, rest assured that the LRB is no friend of the Syrian opposition. Neumann wrote:

The most significant, long-term consequence of Assad’s policy arose from the opening up of Syria to international jihadist networks. Before he turned his country into a transit point for foreign fighters, Syrian jihadists had been largely homegrown. If international links existed, they were to neighbouring countries. Al-Qaida had always had prominent Syrians as members – the strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, for example, or Abu Dahdah, who was sentenced to a lengthy prison term in Spain – but they had fled the country in the early 1980s, and there is no evidence that they directed jihadist activities inside Syria, sought to organise them, or even showed any interest in doing so. The terrorism experts were not entirely wrong, therefore, in believing that – for some time at least – Syria was outside al-Qaida’s orbit.

This changed in 2003 when Assad allowed the jihadists in his country to link up with Zarqawi and become part of a foreign fighter pipeline stretching from Lebanon to Iraq, with way points, safehouses and facilitators dotted across the country. With the active help of Assad’s intelligence services, Syria was opened to the influx – and influence – of experienced and well-connected jihadists from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen and Morocco, who brought with them their contact books, money and skills. Within a few years, the country ceased to be a black spot on the global jihadist map: by the late 2000s it was familiar terrain to foreign jihadists, while jihadists from Syria had become valued members of al-Qaida in Iraq, where they gained combat experience and acquired the international contacts and expertise needed to turn Syria into the next battlefront.

The Washington Post article that alluded to a billion dollars spent on the armed opposition to Assad

Adam Johnson of FAIR, Patrick Higgins of Jacobin, and countless others have linked to this article that like the ones cited above amounts to some kind of “smoking gun” that proves the USA has been involved in “regime change”. Referring to the article, Higgins lamented the fact that “the United States launched a full-scale war against Syria, and few Americans actually noticed.”

I guess Higgins is stunned by the monumental expense but maybe he isn’t aware that a billion dollars is chickenfeed when it comes to supporting military adventures. Experts in the field estimate that Iran spends $6 billion per year to prop up the Syrian dictatorship. Syria spent $2.5 billion on its military in 2011, the last year for which data exists. You can safely assume that it has doubled given the escalation of the violence. So if it was $5 billion, Iran and Syria have spent 44 times as much on warfare than those it has been trying to kill.

One might think that people like Adam Johnson would be more motivated to scrutinize media reports since after all a media watchdog employs him. As is always the case, you need to evaluate multiple reports to gauge whether the USA was involved in what Higgins called “a full-scale war” and that he himself referred to as “intervening” in Syria in “measurable and significant ways.” Perhaps they have a subscription to the WSJ over at FAIR. If they do, Johnson should have been doing his homework before writing such a stupid article. On January 26th of this year, Adam Entous reported:

It didn’t take long for rebel commanders in Syria who lined up to join a Central Intelligence Agency weapons and training program to start scratching their heads.

After the program was launched in mid-2013, CIA officers secretly analyzed cellphone calls and email messages of commanders to make sure they were really in charge of the men they claimed to lead. Commanders were then interviewed, sometimes for days.

Those who made the cut, earning the label “trusted commanders,” signed written agreements, submitted payroll information about their fighters and detailed their battlefield strategy. Only then did they get help, and it was far less than they were counting on.

Some weapons shipments were so small that commanders had to ration ammunition. One of the U.S.’s favorite trusted commanders got the equivalent of 16 bullets a month per fighter. Rebel leaders were told they had to hand over old antitank missile launchers to get new ones—and couldn’t get shells for captured tanks. When they appealed last summer for ammo to battle fighters linked to al Qaeda, the U.S. said no.

All sides now agree that the U.S.’s effort to aid moderate fighters battling the Assad regime has gone badly. The CIA program was the riskiest foray into Syria since civil war erupted in 2011.

Now I don’t care if Higgins and Johnson believe this or not, or for that matter, whether they think the refugee crisis was caused by Nicholas Kristof, but if you don’t take the trouble to account for data that contradicts your thesis, you better get out of the journalism business and look for a job with Rupert Murdoch who is always on the lookout for people who know to twist the truth into a pretzel.

September 18, 2015

BRICS: the anti-capitalist critique

Filed under: Counterpunch,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

Thick as BRICS: an Illusory Alternative to Neoliberalism

Author of Revitalizing Marxist Theory for Today’s Capitalism and other books written in defense of classical Marxism, University of Manitoba professor Radhika Desai probably spoke for the majority of the left when she wrote a Guardian op-ed piece titled “The Brics are building a challenge to western economic supremacy”. Key to this challenge was the creation of a Development Bank that can serve as an alternative to the IMF and the World Bank. As she put it:

The Brics countries do have a mortar that binds them: their common experience, and rejection, of the neoliberal development model of the past several decades and the western-dominated IMF and the World Bank that still advocate it. Their rapid development over the previous couple of decades was despite, not because of, this. Countries whose governments were able and willing to resist this model developed faster.

At the heart of her analysis is the notion of “development”, a term somewhat distinct from the socialist aspirations of earlier generations but one clearly in sync with a chastened left that while not quite agreeing with Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, does see some good in putting people to work on state-sponsored projects that generate tax revenues and raise the standard of living. If it isn’t socialism, at least it is some kind of New Deal. If a capitalism based on “neoliberalism” is to be avoided at all costs, why not opt for a more progressive and humane capitalism that is the “lesser evil”? If this sounds like the argument that some activists make for voting for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or even Bernie Sanders, you may be on to something.

At least some people resting on the foundations of Marxism disagree with Desai. In a newly published collection of articles by Patrick Bond and Ana Garcia titled BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique, you can find powerful arguments making the case that this supposed alternative to neoliberalism is no alternative at all. Whatever your stance on this debate, you would be well served by reading this book since it will enable you to make an informed political decision. It should be added that Pluto Press has published both Radhika Desai and this new book so they deserve kudos for helping the left keep abreast of important theoretical challenges.

Read full article

September 17, 2015

The Cut

Filed under: Armenians,Film,genocide,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Opening today at Lincoln Plaza in New York is “The Cut”, a film by Turkish director Fatih Akin that uses the Armenian genocide as a backdrop for a family drama that is the director’s best work by far. It is notable for its unstinting depiction of Turkish bestiality and is particularly welcome at this point given the AKP’s eagerness to resort to ethnic cleansing once again on the most cruel and cynical basis, namely to corral votes from nationalistic minded Turks for the upcoming election.

In the city of Mardin in 1915 a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) lives with his wife and his twin daughters who are attending elementary school. At dinner, the Manoogians and their guests are anxious about reports of Armenians being rounded up but Nazaret assures them that they have nothing to worry about since they are no threats to the existing order.

A few days later Turkish soldiers pound on the door in the middle of the night demanding to be admitted in the name of the military. Seizing Nazaret, they claim that he and other Armenian men are being rounded up for the draft. This turns out to be a lie. Instead they have been dragooned into building roads in the desolate countryside of eastern Anatolia near the border with Syria. This period was integral to the formation of the modern state of Turkey that rested on the slavery and mass murder of Armenians. It was the tragic fate of the Armenians to be subject to both forms of oppression, combining forced labor of the kind that existed in the Deep South with Andrew Jackson’s forced march that cost the lives of countless Cherokees.

The Armenians spend their days breaking rocks under the desert sun just like convict labor in Jim Crow days. When weaker men fail to keep up with the backbreaking pace, Turkish overseers casually beat them to death. Relief from the hellish chain gang finally comes but at a terrible price. They are told that they will be spared if they become Muslims. While Akin probably wrote his script before the current madness began taking place in Iraq and Syria, you cannot help but be reminded of Daesh since those men who refuse conversion will find themselves taken out and executed, including Nazaret.

As the Turkish soldiers look on, a Turkish convict is ordered to cut the throats of the men one by one since they don’t want to waste a bullet on an Armenian. When he comes to Nazaret, he cuts his neck but not deeply enough to kill him. Later in the day, as Nazaret lies wounded among his dead comrades, the convict returns and gives him water and food. He explains that even though he is a thief, he is not a killer.

Although his life has been spared, the cut of the convict’s knife was deep enough to damage his vocal chords. From this point on in the film, Nazaret is rendered mute. Tahar Rahim delivers a stunning performance using his hands and facial muscles to convey a character whose suffering is oceanic. Rahim, an Algerian who grew up in France, starred most recently in “The Past”, a film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi that I considered the best in 2013. I would rank Rahim as one of the top five actors in the world and is at his best in Akin’s film.

The two men head toward Syria and finally part ways when the convict must return to his village. Once in Syria, Nazaret learns that his wife died in a Turkish concentration camp but not before she had a chance to turn her daughters over to Bedouins who would pass them off as their own children to protect them from the Turks. The kindness of many Syrians is stressed in “The Cut”, including the solidarity shown toward Nazaret by an Arab soap merchant who identifies with the Armenians despite having a different faith. There is a tension throughout the film between solidarity and ethnic cleavage.

Resisting the temptation to demonize Turks, Akin depicts the expulsion of ordinary citizens from Syria in early 1920s as the Ottoman Empire was unraveling. As they parade in silence through the main streets of Aleppo, Arabs pelt the Turks with stones. The expression on Nazaret’s face is one of disgust as he sees how the victims can so easily become victimizers.

Seeking assistance from an Armenian social service agency, he learns that his daughters are no longer with the Bedouins but are now in a foster home somewhere in Syria. Thus begins a search to find them that takes him into the Armenian diaspora with desperate trips to Cuba and the northern plains of the United States where his poverty and loss of speech make his task all the more difficult. Those who have seen John Ford’s “The Searchers” will see a clear resemblance even though this was probably not Akin’s intention.

Although Akin takes pains to differentiate his work from ones that are more narrowly focused on the social and political origins of the first genocide of the 20th century, there is little doubt that the audience will sympathize for the community’s demand to be compensated by the Turkish state for their suffering.

As I have pointed out in previous articles, it is to the everlasting shame of the Zionist state that it sided with the Turks in dismissing Armenian claims. In an article dated April 19, 2015 I referred to the work of an Israeli historian:

But the State of Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the genocide of the Armenian People. Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled, In 1982, the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an inter-national conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film. “Journey to Armenia,” was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.

“The Cut” is the final installment in a trilogy that began in 2004 with “Head-On” and continued with “The Edge of Heaven” in 2007. He refers to the three films as “Love, Death and the Devil”. “Head-On” is a tale about a middle-aged Turkish man living “down and out” in Germany who hooks up with a much younger Turkish woman on the basis of a phony marriage that would allow her to leave her repressively conservative family life. Theirs is a grim sadomasochistic relation that will remind you of Sid Cox’s “Sid and Nancy”, about the Sex Pistol bassist and the girlfriend he killed. Although I regarded the film as pointless despite Akin’s profession that it was a statement about Turks being caught between German and Turkish identity, 90 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes thought it was “fresh”.

I reviewed “The Edge of Heaven” when it came out and dismissed it as a derivative attempt to cash in on a trend set by films such as “Babel” and “Crash” that I referred to as having a combination of far-fetched coincidence and liberal pieties that seem to be irresistible to film festival award panels.

None of this prepared me for the power of “The Cut” that left me just this close to sobbing in the final minute.

“The Cut” is a remarkable film on many levels. Technically, it is a demonstration of the lasting power of 35 mm film with Akin insisting on the use of Cinemascope. In the scenes shot in eastern Anatolia, mountains and the desert have an immediacy that would not be achieved using a digital camera.

It is also a work that gives you a feeling of being transported into a remote time and place as if you have traveled in a time machine. In the press notes, Akin reveals a dedication to “getting it right” that is virtually heroic:

I think I’ve read about 100 books on the topic, even the diary of an Armenian who emigrated to Cuba. Documents about orphanages, stories about the brothels in Aleppo. I also travelled to Armenia for the first time and visited the genocide memorial in Yerevan, where I met the memorial’s director, Hayk Demoyan. He told me that a lot of Armenians had emigrated to Cuba to reach North America. There are lots of Armenians who don’t even know this! So I incorporated that into the film.

This is a film of uncompromising integrity with a commitment to both a victimized people and to the higher calling of filmmaking. Look for it in your better theaters across the USA and elsewhere since it is of paramount importance particularly given the dynamics of a looming catastrophe in Turkey once again.


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