Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2016

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in NY, “Do not Resist” could not be more topical. It is a close look at the militarization of police departments in the USA as well as an evolving form of profiling that has an eerie affinity with the Tom Cruise film “Minority Report” based on a Philip K. Dick short story.

The film opens on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri as Black Lives Matter activists and their supporters fill the streets in August 2014 to protest the killing of Michael Brown. The forces arrayed against them are essentially the same as those that Iraqis confronted in places like Fallujah and Mosul: heavily armored troop carriers with cops in body armor toting automatic rifles. Unlike the automatic rifles that can be purchased in gun shops, these have not been altered to only fire single shots. These M-16’s are capable of firing 700–950 rounds per minute. Is this the right weapon for the streets of Ferguson or any American city for that matter?

In the 1960s, the left and the Black Panther Party in particular used to refer to the cops as an occupying army. Back then it might have struck some liberals as a hyperbole but reality has caught up with the rhetoric. This is exactly what police departments have become in a place like Concord, New Hampshire that has had exactly two murders in the past 16 years. Director Craig Atkinson films a city council meeting in which there is a hearing on whether to accept the “gift” of an armored troop carrier from the Department of Homeland Security that has dispensed $38 billion in military equipment to local precincts since it was formed. One of the people speaking to the councilman is a Marine corps veteran who served in Fallujah. Despite his insistence that the equipment has no use in Concord, they vote to accept it.

We see cops in a training session with David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor, professor of military science, and Army Ranger who founded something called the Killology Research Group. No, I am not joking. He tells the audience that arresting a “bad guy” affords the same kind of pleasure as having sex and then goes on to say that cops are in the business of being more violent than the criminal since that is what it takes to keep the peace. Poor George Orwell didn’t see the half of it. Oh, did I mention that Grossman never was in combat?

Even further out on the insanity spectrum is Richard A. Berk, a U. of Pennsylvania criminology professor who tells Atkinson that we are moving closer to the point where criminals can be identified before they are born by examining the demographics of their parents, including race. At some point, this will become an exact computer-driven science that will allow preemptive strikes against the “bad guys” just like Predator drones.

In January 2013, Wired Magazine reported on the professor:

The software aims to replace the judgments parole officers already make based on a parolee’s criminal record and is currently being used in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Richard Berk, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania who developed the algorithm, claims it will reduce the murder rate and other crimes and could help courts set bail amounts as well as sentencing in the future.

“When a person goes on probation or parole they are supervised by an officer. The question that officer has to answer is ‘what level of supervision do you provide?’” Berk told ABC News. The software simply replaces that kind of ad hoc decision-making that officers already do, he says.

To create the software, researchers assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 crimes, including homicides, then wrote an algorithm to find the people behind the crimes who were more likely to commit murder when paroled or put on probation. Berk claims the software could identify eight future murderers out of 100.

What makes the film compelling above all else is the willingness of people like Berk and various Swat team officers to open up to Atkinson who accompanies them on raids just like in the awful reality show “Cops”. The footage is appalling. We see more than a dozen heavily armed cops raiding the home of an African-American family on the premise that a major drug trafficking gang lives there. They bust all the windows in the course of the raid for reasons that make about as much sense as any other forms of police behavior depicted in the film. It turns out that there is a tiny amount of weed in the house that belongs to a young man going to college who they take off in handcuffs. When asked by his father what they are going to do about the broken windows, they shrug their shoulders and say it was necessary.

In the press notes, Atkinson states how he came to make the film:

In April 2013, I watched the police response in the days following the Boston Marathon bombing in awe. I had never associated the vehicles, weapons and tactics used by officers after the attack with domestic police work. I grew up with the War on Drugs era of policing: My father was an officer for 29 years in a city bordering Detroit and became a SWAT commander when his city formed a team in 1989. What I wasn’t familiar with, since my father’s retirement from the force in 2002, was the effect the War on Terror had on police work. Making this film was an attempt to understand what had changed.

Knowing that interviews with experts would do little to communicate the on-the ground reality of American policing, we instead set out to give the viewer a direct experience. We attended police conventions throughout the country and started conversations with SWAT officers at equipment expos and a seemingly endless cascade of happy hours, offering the only thing we could: an authentic portrayal of whatever we filmed together. On more than one occasion, we were on our way to the airport, camera in hand, only to receive a phone call from our contact in the police department instructing us not to come. Our access seemed to be directly tied to the amount of negative press the police were getting at that time. It became increasingly difficult to get access after the events in Ferguson, and there were many times we thought we would have to stop production altogether. The urgency of the situation, however, motivated us to continue.

Like Craig Atkinson, co-directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi had extraordinary access to some sordid characters, in this instance the top cleric of the Red Mosque network in Pakistan rather than racist cops. The result was a compelling documentary that is essential for understanding the growth of jihadi-breeding Madrassas in Pakistan that opened today at the Cinema Village in New York.

Much of the film consists of interviews with Maulana Abdul Aziz, who despite his bland manner is just as toxic as any ISIS figurehead. While he claims to be a man of peace, he insists that Pakistan will endure bloody turmoil until it becomes an Islamic state.

His main adversary is Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor in Lahore who is one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a miracle that he has not been killed. He is particularly appalled by the total absence of scientific education in the madrassas that are mostly devoted to teaching young boys and girls how to memorize the Quran.

While the film does not exactly apply a historical materialist analysis to the growth of the Red Mosque network, it is painfully obvious why the schools are flourishing. For children from the Pakistani countryside, as well as those who came originally from Kashmir, it is the only way to have food and a roof over their heads. Their parents tend to be poor farmers and day laborers who are just one step beyond starvation themselves. According to the UN’s most recent Human Development Indicators report, 60.3% of Pakistan’s population lives under $1 a day. If memorizing the Quran means having something to eat, that’s motivation enough. Indeed, it might even motivate you to become a suicide bomber as is suggested by an 8-year old student of Aziz reciting a chant about jihad for the cameras that includes a line about killing anybody who attacks their mosque.

The Red Mosque network does have reasons to fear such an attack since an escalating series of confrontations between them and the government finally led to the siege of their main mosque in Islamabad in 2007 that resulted in 254 deaths. This led to a war in Waziristan that pitted Aziz’s allies in the Taliban against the Pakistani army that led to another 3000 deaths.

The film depicts a conflict that has ramifications for the entire world, not just in Islamabad or Pakistan. The boys who go to Aziz’s madrassas are cannon fodder for an Islamist movement that believes the solution to the world’s problems is Salafism of the most extreme variety. Right now the White House solution to this “threat” is Predator drones.

In November 2014, Steve Coll reported on Predator drone strikes for the New Yorker magazine, a weapon that Obama joked about in a White House Correspondents Dinner in 2010: “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you, ‘predator drones.’ You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.” Most people understand how creepy the president was when he made this joke, especially in light of what was happening on the ground as Coll reported:

On January 23, 2009, three days after Obama took office, two C.I.A. drones struck inside Pakistan—one in South Waziristan and one in North Waziristan. Both attacks reportedly killed civilians. The strike in North Waziristan hit a private home in the village of Zeraki. According to an affidavit from two witnesses, filed in a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the dead included an eighth-grade boy and schoolteachers. The South Waziristan strike killed a pro-government peace negotiator who was a tribal leader and four of his family members, entirely in error, according to “Kill or Capture” (2012), a book about Obama’s counterterrorism policy by the former Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman.

When you keep in mind that Hillary Clinton is a big fan of Predator drones, approving 99 out of a 100 strikes, that’s reason enough to vote Green in 2016.

Finally, there is “The Hurt Business”, a film that unfortunately came to my attention only yesterday on the very day it was both opening and closing. I am not quite sure how the documentary got distributed on a single-day basis but it is an excellent film about a not so excellent subject—Mixed Martial Arts—that should be available on VOD before long (I will post a notice when that happens.)

In 2002 when I got cable, mostly as way to watch TV after the antenna on top of the WTC came crashing down along with the rest of the building a few months earlier, I stumbled across something called MMA that I found oddly compelling in the same way that “Cops” was compelling. Although I hate violence and police arrests, especially of people smoking weed as seen in “Do not Resist”, there was something morbidly fascinating about men beating each other up.

“The Hurt Business” has the particular merit of explaining why such spectacles can command the attention of a Marxist like me as well as millions of other Americans who do like to see people beaten to a bloody pulp. I am not a sociobiologist but there is something very deeply rooted in class society that allows it to become a spectator sport. In fact, the film points out that it was part of the Greek Olympics early on and even shows a vase from the 5th century depicting a fighter “tapping out” to show that he is surrendering.

Despite the senselessness of the “sport”, the participants interviewed by director Vlad Yudin, a Russian émigré, include some of the retired fighters I used to watch more than a decade ago (Tito Ortiz, Chuck Lidell, Ken Shamrock, Kenny Florian) and today’s top names including Ronda Rousey, who some regard as pound for pound the finest female fighter who ever lived (until she got knocked out last year), are all articulate, self-effacing, funny, and likeable.

Two things stand out in the film. First is the vulnerability the fighters have to being economically exploited. For many, a big payday is $25,000—hardly a sum that will allow you to live like a hedge fund manager. If you become a headliner like Rousey, the pay-off will be much larger but getting there is no easy matter. Unlike boxing, where eye damage and the like can keep you out of the ring for an extended period, mixed martial arts is a combination of boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and just about every other form of hand-to-hand combat. This means that you can blow out a knee as happened to former light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans whose struggle to recover and get back into the ring is just one of the human dramas that the film sensitively depicts.

While there is only a brief mention of concussions in the film, it should be abundantly clear that MMA fighters are just as susceptible to permanent brain damages as boxers. One fighter admits to a doctor that he has suffered 14 concussions in his career. Like baseball players, there is a big temptation to use steroids. For a MMA fighter, the incentive is even greater since their career is so much more short-lived.

I suspect that boxing, MMA and even football will die out when the capitalist system is replaced by one that values human life and happiness above everything else. Maybe in that better future, competition will take place over the chess board or even touch football. Or maybe people will just be tired of competition period. After 10,000 years it does become tiresome.


September 28, 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

If Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” had a subtitle, it could well be “Why Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Party leader”. Focused on the Kafkaesque ordeals a 59-year old widowed carpenter puts up with to get health allowance benefits after suffering a heart attack, it is an indictment of an entire social system in which Britain’s most vulnerable are being thrown overboard by a cold and cost-conscious bureaucracy that received its marching orders from the combined forces of New Labour and the Tories.

As the film begins, we only hear the voices of Daniel Blake and his petty official interrogator who is asking him a series of questions about his health status: Was he able to lift his arms above his head?; Could he walk 50 meters from his home?; Was he having problems with his bowel movements? After each question, he responds by saying that it is heart preventing him from work, not his hands, feet or ass. His physician has told him that he must receive benefits for another month before he can be cleared to go back to work, something that he wants more than anybody including the penny-pinching bureaucrats. This is of no importance to his interrogator who deems him fit to work.

When we finally see the two, they are sitting in a benefits office in Newcastle, a solidly blue-collar city in northeast England where Blake has worked all his life. It gave birth to the saying “Bringing coal to Newcastle”, which means a foolish action since Newcastle had been a mining town as far back as the sixteenth century. The office houses the local Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)  and looks just like the unemployment office I used to visit after retiring from Columbia University in 2012. Despite the reputation of American cruelty to those in a dependent state, I never faced the kind of grilling that Daniel Blake submitted to. When Blake is told by the bureaucrat that he is required to start working for work immediately or else he would be cut off, he challenges her. How do her inane questions that have nothing to do with his heart attack trump the his doctor’s orders? What gives her that power? Upon being challenged, she replies superciliously that she is a qualified health professional and invites him to challenge the denial of benefits if he so wishes. She has him over a barrel.

Not knowing much about this aspect of the one-time vaunted British welfare state, I did a bit of research and discovered that the interrogation was being carried out under a plan designed by Atos, a French firm that was hired out to the DWP in 2008 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

Was it possible that Loach was exaggerating the assault on health and income benefits? If anything his account was understated as demonstrated by this February 12, 2016 Telegraph article:

A dying Army veteran suffering from dementia has been sent a “Capability For Work questionnaire” by the Department for Work and Pensions, his family say.

Desmond O’Toole, 63, served his country in the Royal Engineers but is now being cared for in a nursing home as Alzheimer’s has left him unable to walk, talk or chew food.

Now his family have taken to Facebook to complain about the DWP questionnaire to see if Mr O’Toole is able to return to work.

“Yet again my mum has to fill in another 20-page form so my dad can get the benefits he needs.”

Daniel Blake is simultaneously a fully-developed character and a universal symbol of Britain’s betrayed working class, just as much as the miners who struck in 1984. Although much more representative of individual resistance than mass action, Blake continuously evokes sympathy from onlookers who also feel screwed by New Labour and the Tories. As Blake witnesses a young woman and her two children being given the runaround at the DWP office, he does what any class-conscious worker would do. He speaks up on her behalf and confronts the two security guards who are throwing her out.

This leads to a close connection between him and the single mom’s family who have ended up in Newcastle when an apartment had become available. It was a big step up from living in a homeless shelter in London but the woman named Katy (Hayley Squires) is still living on the margins, depending on the food bank and even resorting to shoplifting to keep her children fed.

As Daniel Blake, Dave Johns is my pick for best actor of 2016. Besides being an actor, he is a stand-up comedian who has worked in improv. He brings a sense of comic timing to the role that often gives you the feeling that the film itself was partly improvised just like a Mike Leigh film.

As it happens, the script was written by Paul Laverty who wrote the screenplay for Loach’s “Carla’s Song”, a film about the Sandinista revolution. Laverty drew upon his own experience making this film. When I was involved with technical aid projects in Nicaragua, Laverty—an attorney—was providing information to human rights groups about contra crimes he collected in the war zone. He also wrote the script for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, Loach’s film about the Irish rebellion of the 1920s.

Laverty’s recollections in the press notes should give you an idea of how close he and Loach were to the realities of the British poor. The film has an authenticity about the marginalized population that most British films lack, even when their heart is in the right place:

But the immediate spark for this story started with a call I got from Ken to join him on a visit to his childhood home of Nuneaton where he has close connection with a charity that deals with homelessness. We met some terrific workers and they introduced us to some of the youngsters they were working with. One lad whom they had recently helped shared his life story with us. It was his casual mention of hunger and description of nausea and lightheadedness as he tried to work (as usual, zero hour contracts with precarious work on an ad hoc basis) that really struck us.

As Ken and I travelled the country, one contact leading to another, we heard many stories. Food banks became a rich source of information. It struck us that when we made MY NAME IS JOE or SWEET SIXTEEN, or even going further back to Ken’s earlier films, one of the big differences now was the new world of food banks.

As more and more stories came to light we realised that many people are now making a choice between food or heat. We met a remarkable man in Scotland, principled and articulate, desperate to work, who refused point blank to do meaningless workfare, who was given endless sanctions by the Department for Work and Pensions. He never turned his heating on, survived on the cheapest canned food from Lidl and nearly got frostbite in February 2015.

We heard stories of “revenge evictions” i.e. tenants thrown from their homes for having the temerity to complain of faults and poor conditions. We were given examples of the poor being moved from London and offered places outside the capital, a species of social cleansing. And it was impossible not to sense the echo from some fifty years back when Ken and colleagues made CATHY COME HOME although this was something we never talked about.

Breaking the stereotypes, we heard that many of those attending the food banks were not unemployed but the working poor who couldn’t make ends meet. Zero hour contracts caused havoc to many, making it impossible to plan their lives with any certainty and leaving them bouncing between irregular work and the complexity of the bene t system.

Another significant group we spoke to in the food banks were those who had been sanctioned (i.e. bene ts stopped as punishment which could be from a minimum of a month to three years) by the DWP. Some of the stories were so surreal that if we had them in the script they would undermine credibility, like the father who was sanctioned for attending the birth of his child, or a relative attending a funeral, despite informing the DWP of the reasons. Literally millions have been sanctioned and their lives, and those of their children, thrown into desperation by a simple administrative decision. Criminals are treated with more natural justice, and the fines are often less than what benefit claimants lose when hit by a sanction.

Food. Heat. House. The basics, from time immemorial. We knew in our gut this film had to be raw. Elemental.

“I, Daniel Blake” will be shown at the NY Film Festival on Saturday, October 1 at 3:00 PM and Sunday, October 2, 12:30 PM. It is Ken Loach at his best and it doesn’t get any better than that. (Ticket information here.)




September 26, 2016

The Unknown Girl

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm

This year’s New York Film Festival has a bumper crop of political films that are undoubtedly connected to the stormy period we are living through. In years past, I would have not had the opportunity to attend press screenings since getting credentialed was a bureaucratic nightmare for anybody who was not a full-time paid employee of a print publication like the NY Times, the Village Voice, et al. But in recent years I have been invited to press screenings from one or another of a large number of film publicists who cut through the red tape because they are familiar with my coverage of political films. The dovetailing of interests might be indicated by the films I will be covering this year for the festival that begins on September 30th. My strong recommendation is for New Yorkers to consult the schedule since this is a banner year for the radical film buff as would be indicated by the following items:

  1. Neruda—a quirky but brilliant film about the Communist poet from Chile that I have already reviewed.
  2. The Thirteenth—a documentary about the Black liberation struggle made by Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma”.
  3. Aquarius—a Brazilian film about a 65-year old widow fending off a real estate developer trying to buy her apartment.
  4. I, Daniel Blake—a Ken Loach film about the British health system.
  5. The Unknown Girl—the latest Dardenne brothers film that I saw this morning and now review below.

Like “The Promise” and “Two Days, One Night”, “The Unknown Girl” examines the moral dilemmas facing people living in Belgian society where the possibilities of acting honorably are constrained by the capitalist system. In “The Promise”, a teenaged boy is forced by his racist father to keep secret the death of an undocumented worker from Africa. When he comes in contact with the man’s widow, he violates his father’s trust but discovers his own innate humanity. In “Two Days, One Night”, a woman pleads with co-workers from her factory to forsake a desperately needed year-end bonus so that she won’t be laid off.

The unknown girl referred to in the title is a seventeen-year old prostitute from Africa who buzzes to be let into the medical offices of Dr. Jenny Davin an hour after office hours have closed. Since her office is in a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Lieges with more than enough patients to make regular hours exhausting in themselves, the refusal to open the door does not seem particularly portentous.

The next morning cops show up at her door to inform her that the girl was found dead on the banks of the Meuse River, the result of a fractured skull probably due to a violent assault. Davin, a single woman in her thirties who seems to have no life outside of her patients, is stricken with guilt over finding this out. She might not have landed the blow but her keeping the doors closed was almost being an accessory after the fact since the girl was not a patient but someone fleeing an assailant. Will this tangled human relationship evoke Europe’s refusal to accept the refugees fleeing war and economic misery? One cannot be sure that this was the Dardenne brothers’ intention but on a subconscious level, it is entirely possible.

The girl’s body lacked any kind of identification papers so Dr. Davin begins to grow even more remorseful. Not only was she inadvertently responsible for her death; she has denied her family the knowledge of her passing since she is unknown. Buried in a potter’s field, she can only be identified by the newly dug up dirt above her coffin.

Like the factory worker who goes knocking on doors in “Two Days, One Night”, “The Unknown Girl” is also a film whose plot is driven by a similar voyage as the doctor contacts people one by one who might have run into the prostitute on the night she was killed. Can they tell her who she was? While there is an element of a detective story at work here, including facing the violence of men who do not want her snooping around, the film is much more an existential mystery as the doctor tries to persuade various men to unburden themselves of a secret. And like “Two Days, One Night”, the conversations become increasingly intense to the point of leaving you emotionally drained.

The film is made in the Dardenne brothers characteristically austere naturalistic style with no interest in melodrama, only in showing the daily grind of a doctor who in her spare moments plays amateur detective. Unlike no other film I have ever seen, this is one that really conveys the life of a doctor. Since the Belgian medical system pays for house visits, many of her calls bring her into touch with poor people who are socially isolated. Her presence seems to lighten up their day, including a young cancer patient. In some ways, she is as much a priest as a doctor, especially when she is trying to get someone to confess.

As is the case with their previous films, there is no film score. But that does not mean that the sound of the film was of no interest to the co-directors. You constantly hear passing cars on the highway below the office, just as I hear now on Third Avenue beneath my high-rise. The low growl of the motors and the hiss of the tires against the pavement are as effective as the strings in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.

I regard the Dardenne brothers as among a handful of directors who are continuing in the grand tradition of the masters of the 1950s and early 60s such as Kurosawa, Ray, Fellini and Truffaut. When you get an opportunity to grab one of their films, do not miss it. A word to the wise should be sufficient.



September 24, 2016

Michael Ansara’s special pleading for Hillary Clinton

Filed under: corruption,parliamentary cretinism,student revolt,trade unions — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Michael Ansara

It makes perfect sense for Michael Ansara to be urging a vote for Hillary Clinton in Vox.com, the website launched by Ezra Klein in 2014. Klein is a 32-year old wunderkind who got started at the Washington Post, a newspaper to the right of the NY Times. Klein, who Doug Henwood once referred to as a “Neoliberal über-dweeb”, supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Like Hillary Clinton, he came to rue his decision but only because it went sour. As the dweeb put it:

I thought there was no way the Bush administration would neglect to plan for the obvious challenges of the aftermath. I turned on the war quickly when I saw how poorly and arrogantly it was being managed.

So who is this Ansara guy anyhow? Unlike Klein, he would seem to have some credibility as a radical, at least on the basis of how he describes himself in the Vox article:

I am a New England regional organizer for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest New Left student organization spearheading the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Living in Cambridge, I swim in a river of others just as young and just as committed — committed to ending the war in Vietnam; committed to radical change for black Americans; committed to creating an American New Left, rooted in American realities and traditions. But in this year of 1968, what we most want is to end the seemingly endless war in Vietnam, a responsibility that rests uncomfortably on our too-young shoulders.

To begin with, you have to unpack the statement “the largest New Left student organization spearheading the opposition to the war in Vietnam”. By 1968, SDS had largely abandoned opposition to the war except for campus-based actions such as opposing military recruiters, etc. It did very good work on campus but it stood apart from the mass demonstrations being organized by a coalition consisting of the SWP, the CP and pacifists that it regarded as ineffective. SDS had organized the first antiwar demonstration in Washington in 1965, largely through the prodding of the SWP, but had become disappointed by the continuation of the war. It combined anti-imperialist rhetoric with adventurist tactics that mirrored the frustration of much of the student left. By 1971 SDS had fallen apart with the Weatherman faction going underground to carry out foolish terrorist attacks on “enemy” buildings as if a pipe bomb could halt the war in Vietnam.

While some New Leftists went off in an ultraleft direction, others pinned their hopes on “peace” candidates like Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy. In fact, the 1968 protests at the Democratic Party convention were designed to put pressure on the delegates to nominate such a candidate even if people like Dave Dellinger and Abby Hoffman were cagey about not putting it in exactly that way. Given the fact that the DP was still the party carrying out the war, it would have been inadvisable to give it carte blanche.

Referring to the 1968 elections, Michael Ansara is repentant for not supporting Hubert Humphrey:

We sit out the election. We organize street protests. We march. We mock. We do not organize young people to vote in one of the closest elections in American history. There are tens of thousands of young people looking to us for direction. We do not say, “Make history. Swing this election to Humphrey and show how powerful we as a group now are.” No, we say, “A plague on both your houses,” and walk away.

He depicts Richard Nixon as fomenting “a right-wing counter-reformation to hold power and warp American politics for most of the next four decades.”

Actually, Nixon looks pretty good in retrospect compared to Barack Obama. Keep in mind that Nixon was far more ambitious on environmental questions than Obama and directed all federal contractors to develop “an acceptable affirmative action program.” He also carried out an essentially Keynesian economic program that included a budget in 1970 based on “the high-employment standard”—ie, deficit spending.

Leaving aside the fiction that SDS organized street protests, Ansara likens SDS’s leftist opposition to the two-party system to those of us today who prefer Jill Stein to Hillary Clinton as he puts it:

The one irreducible fact of this bizarre election is this: The only way Donald Trump does not become president of the United States is if Hillary Clinton does. In any closely contested state, staying home or voting for a third-party candidate is, in its impact, a vote for Trump. It does not take a great leap of moral or political imagination to envision the damage a Trump presidency will bring to our nation and to the world.

Todd Gitlin

This business about how the left should have voted for Humphrey in 1968 is not new, especially coming from an SDS muckety-muck. Todd Gitlin, who was president of SDS from 1963 to 1964, argued this long before Trump reared his ugly head. In 2003, Todd Chretien took note of the Humphreymania in a review of Gitlin’s pompously titled “Letters to a Young Activist” in a CounterPunch review:

Playing fast and loose with the facts, Gitlin tells his young activist reader–who he prefers to call a “social entrepreneur”–that had the antiwar movement supported Democrat Hubert Humphrey (who personally helped escalate the war for the five previous years as Johnson’s vice president) for president in 1968, “he would have phased out the war.” Thus, the lesson is, if you don’t vote for the Democrats, you are morally responsible for Nixon and Pol Pot.

While not quite veering into the pro-war camp in 2003 like Ezra Klein, Gitlin came coquettishly close:

Hawks unquestionably have their arguments. Various pro-war cases deserve to be made, as does the point that they sometimes clash. If the administration makes these arguments shoddily, they still deserve to be made cogently somewhere.

I never met Michael Ansara but his name came up frequently in SWP meetings in 1970 when I arrived in Boston. Ansara was a leader of the SDS faction that was trying to ward off the Maoist Progressive Labor Party’s bid to take over the group that had already started to decline—mostly as a result of its abstinence from the antiwar movement.

After graduating Harvard in 1968, Ansara worked for SDS until the group split into three different Maoist sects, one led by PLP, the other by Mike Klonsky, and the last that still exists as a cult around Bob Avakian.

Like many others with a Harvard degree, Ansara was blessed by the doors that it opened for him. Eventually he started a citizen’s action group called Massachusetts Fair Share that was inspired by Nader’s Public Citizen. In 1983 auditors discovered that Fair Share had more than $1 million in debts, which led to Michael Ansara resigning in the face of criticism that he was responsible for its financial collapse.

That did not seem to faze Ansara who moved on to start a telemarketing firm called the Share Group that in a partnership with another money-raising firm called The November Group was hired by Ron Carey, a leader of the rank-and-file Teamsters group that Dan La Botz wrote a book about. Many people who were to become members of Solidarity were Carey’s most effective organizers.

The November Group was a part-owner of Ansara’s outfit. Its CEO was a sleazeball named Martin Davis, who made big money hiring out to big-time campaigns in the DP, including Clinton-Gore’s presidential campaign in 1992. Between 1992 and 1996 the November Group raked in $650,000 from the Teamster’s treasury. It also exercised influence on Carey to keep the nascent Labor Party at arm’s length.

All this worked to Ansara’s advantage. He also earned big fees and flattered himself into believing that his work had something to do with a renewed labor movement. The ability of some people to betray their youthful ideals in the name of upholding them is quite remarkable. One imagines that a Harvard education goes a long way toward helping the intellect get twisted into such knots.

In 1997, Ansara’s world collapsed after a Federal Grand Jury began investigating illegal kickbacks to Carey’s campaign for the Teamster presidency. Ansara’s wife Barbara Zack Quindel had donated $95,000 as part of a quid quo pro deal with the Share Group. The NY Times reported:

The teamsters paid the Share Group $48,587 last Oct. 22, and nine days later Ms. Arnold contributed $45,000 to the Carey campaign. The teamsters international paid the Share Group another $48,587 on Nov. 15, and Ms. Arnold donated an additional $50,000 11 days later.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It is the same kind of dodgy backroom deals that the Clinton Foundation thrives on.

In September of 1997 Martin Davis pleaded guilty to mail fraud, embezzling union funds and conspiracy to commit fraud while Ansara pleaded guilty to conspiracy. For each count, they faced up to five years in prison and possibly a $250,000 fine or twice what they made from the scheme.

Ansara eventually was sentenced to probation and forced to make restitution of $650,000. But the biggest damage was not to him but to the labor movement. Carey’s culpability allowed Jimmy Hoffa Jr. to regain the Teamster presidency and help tighten the bosses’ grip over the labor movement.

Labor leftist and journalist Steve Early summed up the sad state of affairs in “In these Times”:

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors in New York are continuing a criminal investigation. Three Carey associates have already pleaded guilty and face heavy fines and jail time for mail fraud, conspiracy or embezzling union funds on Carey’s behalf. They are: his campaign manager, Jere Nash, a onetime leader of Mississippi Common Cause and consultant to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign; Martin Davis, a millionaire teamster political adviser, who also aided the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and brokered deals for the AFL-CIO’s Union Privilege credit card program, and Michael Ansara, a former community organizer and leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Harvard University in the late ’60s, who later became a “socially-responsible” businessman.

Other alleged participants in or casualties of this troika’s illicit scheming include the Teamsters’ political director William Hamilton, an alumnus of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and a former business associate of Ansara. Hamilton was forced to resign in July and now faces Teamster Independent Review 3card charges of aiding the diversion of dues money to Carey’s campaign—a matter that a federal grand jury in New York is also investigating. Ira Arlook, director of Citizen Action and another ex-SDSer, has run up more than $200,000 in legal bills defending his organization against possible criminal charges over its Teamster money-laundering role. The scandal so damaged the fund-raising ability of Citizen Action’s national organization that the group just closed its Washington, D.C., office and laid off 20 staffers.

The biggest potential losers, however, are Teamster members—particularly those who have worked for change in the union. In the face of beatings, black-listing, redbaiting and other obstacles to reform, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—labor’s most durable and successful rank-and-file group—sacrificed and struggled for more than 20 years to eliminate corruption, gangsterism and sweetheart deals. The reformers’ efforts finally bore fruit six years ago with Carey’s victory in an election conducted as part of the settlement of a Justice Department lawsuit filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. Working with TDU activists around the country and a minority of local officers, Carey has since put 75 troubled locals under trusteeship, cut waste, stepped up Teamster organizing, hired aggressive new staff and won significant bargaining victories like the recent United Parcel Service (UPS) strike.


Filed under: mechanical anti-imperialism,Syria,war — louisproyect @ 1:17 pm



However just as the war crime of the allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 did not invalidate the war against European fascism then, neither does the atrocity of Syrian barrel bombs invalidate the war against its Middle East equivalent today. When the survival of a country and its culture and history is at stake, war can never be anything else but ugly, which is why the sooner it is brought to a conclusion in Syria the better.

John Wight

Syria’s war escalated abruptly on Friday as government forces and their Russian allies launched ferocious aerial assaults on opposition-held areas of Aleppo amid threats of a big ground offensive, while efforts at the United Nations to revive a cease-fire appeared to collapse.

Repeated airstrikes that obliterated buildings and engulfed neighborhoods in flames killed about 100 people in Aleppo, the divided northern Syrian city that has epitomized the horrors of the war, turning the brief cease-fire of last week and hopes for humanitarian relief into faint memories. The bombings knocked out running water to an estimated two million people, the United Nations said.

“It is the worst day that we’ve had for a very long time,” said James Le Mesurier, the head of Mayday Rescue, which trains Syrian rescue workers. “They are calling it Dresden-esque.”

NY Times, ‘Doomsday Today in Aleppo’: Assad and Russian Forces Bombard City, September 24, 2016

September 23, 2016

Ruins of Lifta; Seed

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food,Palestine — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Within the first minute of “Ruins of Lifta”, I immediately recognized the co-director and principal subject of the documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that opened today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It was Menachem Daum, a religious Jew from Brooklyn who was likewise the co-director and principal subject of “Hiding and Seeking”, a film I reviewed in 2004 that chronicled Daum’s visit to Poland with his teen-aged sons in an effort to combat the stereotype common among Jewry, including his sons who were studying in a yeshiva, that the Poles were almost genetically disposed to anti-Semitism like the Germans were according to Daniel Goldhagen. From my review:

“Hiding and Seeking” opens with director Menachem Daum playing a tape for his two sons, who are both Orthodox Jews like him. It is a recording of a Brooklyn rabbi instructing his followers that the “only good goyim is a dead goyim”. (A goyim is a non-Jew.)

 Daum asks them for their reaction and is disappointed but not surprised to discover that they sympathize with the rabbi, while viewing their own relationship to the outside non-believing world more in terms of a desire for isolation rather than one based on animosity. Daum not only tells them that this clashes with his own vision of Judaism, but proceeds to spend the rest of this powerful documentary demonstrating that there is goodness in all human beings and that Jews must engage with rest of humanity with compassion.

 He leads them on a spiritual trek to the Polish countryside where his wife’s father and two uncles were hidden in a barn from the Nazis for over two years by Christian farmers. He wants to prove to them that ethical behavior can still be found in the face of general depravity. As long as that spark exists, there is hope for humanity. His sons, who are religious scholars living in Israel, treat the trip as a complete waste of time and speak directly to the camera about how foolish their father is.

This new film was made in the same vein but with a somewhat different dynamic. It is relatively easy for a father to wise up his kids about the Poles, especially when he introduces them to those that saved the lives of Jews during WWII but the goal in “Ruins of Lifta” is unrealizable—namely to break down the enmity between Jews and Palestinians. The reason for this is obvious. As long as Palestinians remain the dispossessed victims of the Nakba, there cannot be true reconciliation.

The Lifta referred to eponymously is a small Palestinian town that has not been lived in since 1948 when all of the inhabitants were ethnically cleansed. Now merely a collection of stone houses missing walls and roofs, it is located on the outskirts of Jerusalem where developers plan to tear them down and erect luxury high-rises. It was Daum’s intention to show solidarity with the Palestinians who hoped to preserve the ruins as a kind of recognition of what they lost. Much of the film consists of Daum touring the ruins with a former dweller named Yacoub Odeh who is a leader of the Coalition to Save Lifta. Daum keeps trying to persuade Odeh that the Jews had no other option except to create a state of their own but he responds quite logically that it was the Nazis who exterminated the Jews, not the Palestinians. It reminded me of Trotskyist leader George Novack’s observation that Jews were like people jumping out of a burning house but falling toward the sidewalk injured Palestinians walking innocently on the sidewalk beneath them.

Daum’s family was representative of the experience described by Novack. He lost many relatives in the holocaust and had a great-uncle from Poland who joined the Stern Gang. Toward the end of the film, he introduces his great-aunt survivor to Odeh and the same arguments ensue with her harping on Jewish entitlement to Israel because of the Bible and Hitler, an article of faith for Zionists. When Daum, his great-aunt and Odeh stroll through Lifta, it finally begins to dawn on her that real people were driven out of real homes and there is a spark of humanity.

To Daum’s credit, he speaks to Israeli historian Hillel Cohen toward the end of the film about his mission. Cohen explains to him that Palestinian hatred is to be expected. You cannot reconcile with the people you have victimized in the Nakba and continue to dominate. Cohen is a historian to be reckoned with on Israeli history in light of his “Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” that was published last year. The book hones in on the street battles between Jews and Palestinians in 1929, seeing it as a harbinger of future disasters. In a Los Angeles Review of Books review, Arie Dubnov writes:

Departing from the “official” Zionist narrative that portrays all killings committed by Jews as acts of self-defense, he treats Simha Hinkis, the Jewish policeman from Jaffa, harshly: a murderer of innocents, using killing as an instrument of vengeance.

The film was co-directed by Oren Rudavsky, who also co-directed “Hiding and Seeking”. The two also were responsible for “A Life Apart”, a documentary about the Hasidic Jews that was co-narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker (a couple of Jews if you hadn’t noticed) and short-listed for an Academy Award in 1997. I haven’t seen it but on the basis of the films reviewed above, I assume that it is very good.

Today I was stunned to learn that Libertarian Party presidential candidate told a National Press Club luncheon that “In billions of years, the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the Earth, right? So global warming is in our future.” That encapsulated for me the utter indifference that capitalist ideologues and the plutocrats they serve to humanity’s future. If it isn’t relevant to the next quarterly earnings report, they can’t be bothered.

As I watched the superb documentary “Seed” that opened today at the Cinema Village in New York, I could not help but think of the threat to our lives and that of future generations posed by the capitalist class, with the libertarians such as Johnson and the Koch brothers representing its shock troops.

Despite the familiarity I have with the environmental crisis, I was startled to learn at the beginning of the film that in the last century 94 percent of our seed varieties have disappeared. For example, there used to be 544 varieties of cabbage; now there are 28. The numbers for cauliflower are 158 and 9. Such a loss of diversity is alarming as it is for the animal kingdom. With panda bears and condors facing extinction, life will go on although in an impoverished manner. But with the loss of native species and their replacement by GMO monoculture crops, we threaten our own existence since such crops are tied inextricably to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are destructive to the environment, not to speak of our own health. While eating genetically modified corn might not kill you, the weed-killing glyphosate that Monsanto sells certainly can.

Furthermore, the corn that is produced on factory farms in the USA today wreaked havoc on small farmers who could not compete with a commodity dumped into the Mexican market below the local market rate. It was especially devastating to the people of Oaxaca, a state where corn first began to be grown 8000 years ago and that enabled class societies such as the Aztecs to develop. What the conquistadores began to destroy in the 16th century came to a devastating climax in 1994 when NAFTA allowed the USA to sell its corn in Mexico. The ruin of Mexican farmers was not only accompanied by a loss of biodiversity but conceivably the explosion of the drug industry as poor people were forced to break the law in order to survive.

“Seed” is a moving portrait of men and women, including many from indigenous society in the Americas, who are committed to the preservation of seeds that in some ways makes them the counterpart of Noah. Instead of leading animals two by two into the ark, they go around the world tracking down food sources and collecting their seeds to be preserved for posterity. Some of them have the raffish charm of 60s hippies although their work is deadly serious.

The film interviews experts in the field such as Vandana Shiva who sees herself continuing in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Among the most interesting are scientists who work with the Center for Food Safety, a group I was unfamiliar with. They are deeply involved with the struggle against Monsanto in Hawaii that is a threat to native crops as well as the health of the people who live on the islands and have become ill from the indiscriminate spraying of pesticides by Monsanto with no consideration for the well-being of the islanders. When an elected official moved to curtail their use, Monsanto filed suit against his county. Every time I hear about Monsanto in one of these films, I fantasize about their top officers standing on trial some day after the fashion of Nuremburg.

In addition to the essential information contained in the film, it is visually stunning. As one of the protagonists points out, the seeds for various kind of beans are as beautiful as jewels.

The film was co-directed by Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz who worked together on “Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us?”, a film I reviewed in 2011:

In 2007 the media was all abuzz (excuse the pun) over disappearing honey bees, something that was posited as a kind of mystery. After seeing the powerful documentary “Queen of the Sun: What the Bees are Telling Us?”, the only mystery will be why the mainstream media could not have uncovered the source of the looming disaster without delay. Its failure to do so reminds us of the need for alternative sources of information, starting with the experts and activists who are featured in this film directed by Taggart Siegel. Featured prominently in “Queen of the Sun”, beekeeper Gunter Hauk states that the crisis of the disappearing bee is “More important than global warming. We could call it Colony Collapse of the human being too.”

As opposed to corporate shills like Gary Johnson, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is there any candidate who cares about these looming threats?

Protect Mother Earth:

Lead on a global treaty to halt climate change. End destructive energy extraction: fracking, tar sands, offshore drilling, oil trains, mountaintop removal, and uranium mines. Protect our public lands, water supplies, biological diversity, parks, and pollinators. Label GMOs, and put a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides until they are proven safe. Protect the rights of future generations.

That’s Jill Stein for you!

September 21, 2016

Michael Albert versus Karl Marx

Filed under: economics,utopian thought — louisproyect @ 5:01 pm


Michael Albert

After reading the interview Michael Albert gave to the Turkish journal Democratic Modernity and that was crossposted on ZNet today under the title “Beyond Marxism”, I had to carefully consider whether it was worth my time and effort to answer him. Quite frankly, Michael Albert’s left publishing kingdom is no longer what it once was. His South End Press had shut down in 2014 with Publishers Weekly citing Howard Zinn’s agent “we had a hassle with South End, getting back rights to 10 of Howard’s books. And we have not received payment from them for several years.”

My cyber-friend Charles Davis had recently circulated a petition with the heading “Give Charles His Money, Michael” that stated: “Charles Davis is owed $500 by Michael Albert of Znet, who administered teleSUR English’s OpEd page at the time Charles wrote two OpEds for said page. Mr. Albert was given money with which to compensate writers for that page. That money never made it to Charles Davis, a good boy who has politely and repeatedly requested that he receive it, to no avail.” Apparently the petition had the intended effect—Charles got his hard-earned money.

When ZNet was in its heyday, it was the go-to place for left analysis from Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and others outside of a strictly Marxist framework. Albert himself had invented an ideology in partnership with economist Robin Hahnel called Participatory Economics (Parecon) that was advertised as being beyond Marxism, just like the article mentioned above. I always thought that this was chutzpah of biblical proportions but that’s not unusual on a left where megalomania rules.

While hundreds, if not thousands, of websites are devoted to spreading Marxist ideas, somehow nobody has come forward to disseminate the Thoughts of Michael Albert. His influence is questionable at best. While I am not sure how much science there is to the Alexa ratings, Counterpunch has a ranking twelve times that of ZNet, namely 7,081 to 86,631 (a ranking of 1 is awarded to the most visited website, in this case google.com). My own obscure and openly cranky blog is ranked 105,634 and I do everything I can to alienate people.

I finally decided to write this article in the same spirit as the one I wrote on 9/11 Truthers. As absurd as Parecon and controlled demolitions are, something might be gained by defending facts and logic.

Albert begins:

Crisis engulfs. We react. Out comes Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and whoever else.

We quote, quote, quote icons. We shove our own words down the hopper of history so we can echo the Ultimate Angel. Elderly left scholars just keep muttering, Marx said it, Marx knew it, see Volume Three.

Marxologists seem to not care that normal people avoid regurgitated unexplained jargon that lacks clarity and timelyness [sic]. The listener’s anticipation of obscure, impersonal, irrelevance cripples communication.

Who is it exactly that invoked Volume Three of Capital like a radio preacher referring to biblical chapter and verse? Michael Roberts whose blog consists mainly of a review of statistics from government agencies? I know it couldn’t be me since I never read V. 3 of Capital except in dribs and drabs. Since Albert has crossposted articles I wrote for Counterpunch on several occasions, I suppose I pass muster. I am only glad that I never found myself in the position of being owed money. (Counterpunch always paid promptly.)

For Albert, there is a disjunction between word and deed within Marxism. The Marxists believe in a classless society but once in power they become a new ruling class. It always struck me that people who make this argument should not have bothered. The Who said it all, plus you could dance to their analysis:

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

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

The term that Albert coined for this new Marxist class formation is “coordinationism”. It is basically a function of operating an economy from the top down rather than the bottom up:

Put every Marxist text about economics in a pile. I bet that to the extent they provide a serious institutional explanation of preferred allocation mechanisms, incentives, distribution of income, and producer and consumer decision making, they advocate overwhelmingly and perhaps even exclusively, markets and or central planning, a corporate division of labor, remuneration for output, and authoritative decision making, all of which breed coordinator class rule.

Mercifully, Albert spared his readers the cure-all for all this hierarchical top-down control that he and his writing partner Robin Hahnel cooked up. Have any of you ever read their stuff on Participatory Democracy? It is not only mind-numbing; it is an exercise in what Karl Marx called writing recipes for the cookbook of the future. (Oh, my gosh! I quoted Marx. I am doomed.)

Self-managed worker councils have autonomy over how they go about rating their members. The only restriction placed on them is that the average effort rating that worker councils award their members is capped. This could be done by either giving the same cap to all workplaces or by basing it on the social benefit to social cost ratio of the workplace as explained in participatory planning on the next page. The reason for capping is to avoid the possibility of workers over-estimating each others effort ratings in return for the same favour, or what could lead to “effort rating inflation”.

Think about this. If in 1990 or so, Albert and Hahnel had gotten their hands on a time-machine like the DeLorean in “Back to the Future” and transported themselves back 70 years to the USSR and put their lofty thoughts into the hands of V.I. Lenin who then slapped his forehead and exclaimed “Why hadn’t I thought of this?”, would that have made any difference?

Unfortunately, the Parecon twins are obviously unschooled in historical materialism, which is the only methodology that would have explained how the USSR degenerated. The people who were committed to a classless society were largely killed off in the civil war. Young workers who fought with the Red Army sacrificed their lives in the hope that a new society could be built on the principles of the Paris Commune or the Soviets. For their efforts, they were bombed, shot and bayoneted by 21 invading armies. When the Soviet economy required people with the basic literacy and administrative skills to run a telephone company or a post office, the government was forced to put men and women in charge who had not joined the Red Army like factory workers and poor peasants had done. They relied on apparatchiks from the Czarist bureaucracy.

Maybe Albert would have recommended an alternative to the centralized phone company and post office that are hangovers from capitalist society. I can just see his recipe for avoiding such an essentially hierarchical mode of production—using tin cans connected by waxed string and carrier pigeons.

Around 20 years ago I wrote an article titled “Neo-Utopian Socialism”. It is worth repeating what I said about Albert and Hahnel back then:

Turning to their “Looking Forward”, we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert’s [and Hahnel’s] enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgement on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:

Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as the schemas of the 19th century predated it. It will be besides the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”

Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

Another cause of utopian thought is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies. Except for North Korea and Cuba, there is not a country in the world that doesn’t seem to be galloping at full speed into the capitalist sphere. As this anti-capitalist reality becomes part of history, it is tempting to create an alternative reality where none of the contradictions of “existing socialism” existed.

This is fundamentally an ahistorical approach and will yield very little useful new political guidelines about how to achieve socialism in the future. These answers will not come out of utopian fantasies, but in further analysis of the historical reasons underlying the collapse of the USSR. In-depth analysis by serious scholars such as Moshe Lewin focus on the structural problems, not on statements made by Lenin and Trotsky made on management wrenched out of context.

September 20, 2016

A conversation with Jon Flanders

Filed under: socialism,workers — louisproyect @ 6:17 pm

September 19, 2016

Requiem for Syria

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

This is absolutely brilliant agitprop. Watch the film and then make a contribution to these comrades for their peerless contribution to Syrian solidarity.

September 18, 2016

The uncontrolled demolition of the Truther brain

Filed under: conspiracism,September 11 — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

Over the past five years I have monitored various pro-Assad websites in order to keep track of the amen corner’s latest talking points. At various times I have read Global Research, World Socialist Website and Moon of Alabama towards that end but never simultaneously since that would overload my circulatory and nervous systems to dangerous levels.

About three months ago I began monitoring a new website after one of my FB friends, who disagrees with me on Syria but like so many people is quite good on other questions, posted a link to an article on something called Off-Guardian that is focused on exposing the Guardian newspaper. As you might expect, they serve up articles crossposted from RT.com and other media associated with the “axis of resistance”. Given the generally fact-free environment of Off-Guardian, I am surprised nobody has started something called Off-Off-Guardian.

This month I was mildly surprised to see that they were avid 9/11 Truthers, posting numerous articles about a vast conspiracy that helped the USA launch wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. I say mildly surprised since Off-Guardian relies on conspiratorial “false flag” mumbo-jumbo rather than any kind of class analysis. When I quoted Alexander Cockburn on Trutherism, who certainly would have agreed with them on the need to back Assad, they took great umbrage:

These days a dwindling number of leftists learn their political economy from Marx via the small, mostly Trotskyist groupuscules. Into the theoretical and strategic void has crept a diffuse, peripatetic conspiracist view of the world that tends to locate ruling class devilry not in the crises of capital accumulation, or the falling rate of profit, or inter-imperial competition, but in locale (the Bohemian Grove, Bilderberg, Ditchley, Davos) or supposedly “rogue” agencies, with the CIA still at the head of the list. The 9/11 “conspiracy”, or “inside job”, is the Summa of all this foolishness.

In some ways, it makes perfect sense that Trutherism would resonate with the Assadist left since their analysis of the war is based on the idea that intelligence agencies in the West plotted to remove Assad and then exploited “false flags” to justify its intervention. I reviewed this in an article I posted a year ago titled “Baathist Truthers” that points out how Wikileaks and other hacked material matters much more to them than class relations in Syria. One supposes that given the unfamiliarity with historical materialism in such circles, it could have hardly turned out differently.

As it happens, the spasm of Truther articles on Off-Guardian and some videos that cropped up on FB “proving” once and for all that 9/11 was a “false flag” got the old noggin worked up enough to say something about this nonsense. I realize that most of my regular readers would never believe that crap to begin with but as happens with me frequently, I write in order to get something out of my system rather than change anybody’s mind. It is self-administered psychotherapy.

This article will not attempt to refute all of the Truther claims since that would require more time and more words than is justified, plus the last thing that I have an appetite for is arcane discussions of whether jet fuel can melt steel, etc. Instead I want to explore the whole question of controlled demolitions, which is a sine qua non for the conspiracy theorists.

As I pointed out to the Off-Guardian people in a comment on an article titled “On the physics of high-rise building collapses”, “If you don’t think the impact of the plane was a factor but instead ‘controlled detonation’, you need to believe that a building as tightly guarded as the WTC (I know because I used to work two blocks from it and was there 3 or 4 times a week) allowed a small army of demolitions experts to come in unimpeded and deploy a huge amount of TNT.”

Except for that and a few other comments posted there, I was ready to let the whole thing drop because I understood that belief in a 9/11 conspiracy is about as far-fetched as believing that the moon landing didn’t occur, etc. However, when a FB friend posted a link to an article titled “15 Years Later, Physics Journal Concludes: All 3 WTC Towers Collapsed Due to Controlled Demolition”, I commented that it was nonsense. In the course of defending the article, he insisted that I watch a video that I dutifully did. That video and the Off-Guardian junk convinced me that this rebuttal was necessary even if doesn’t change a single mind. I need to get it off my chest, damn it.

When I got to the point in the video where there was some kind of proof of a conspiracy to bring down the towers through a controlled demolition, I was shocked to discover that it was this:


In other words, we are led to believe that because the Ace Elevator Company had unlimited access to the elevator shafts, its men could have served as co-conspirators along with al-Qaeda and the CIA. This is rather mind-boggling when you stop and think about it.

You can get a flavor for the “analysis” about the role of Ace Elevator from an article titled “ACE Elevator Company: 9/11 Questions and Research” by Rick Shaddock. He finds it quite suspicious that the company is not mentioned in the official report. Neither is the security company that would have vouchsafed its work. But he does find it significant that the Larry Silverstein, the owner of the WTC complex, was able to hire “the Jewish firm Kroll for security.” Oh, I got it. Silverstein…the Jewish firm Kroll”. Now the scales are falling from my eyes.

One of the Truther commenters at Off-Guardian recommended a book titled “The Host and the Parasite” to help me understand how security could have bypassed prior to 9/11. To show how I take my ideological adversaries seriously, I even downloaded the book to Kindle (taking advantage of a temporary premium membership that I will terminate after I’d had a chance to look at the stupid book.)

Okay, here’s the deal. The Host is the USA and the parasite is Israel. Basically Felton argues that American politics is subservient to the state of Israel and that American Jews have no loyalty to the country—people like Larry Silverstein et al are dirty rats. You can get a flavor for Felton’s scientific acumen by his taking seriously the possibility that a “small-yield hydrogen bomb” might have been detonated on 9/11 in addition to explosives planted in the basement by unidentified agents. Why a hydrogen bomb? Because of the pulverization of the building into a micron-sized dust aerosol, the high incidence of cancer among emergency responders and the recording of an electromagnetic pulse by broadcast cameras. So where did they get the hydrogen bomb, you ask. Well, maybe Larry Silverstein called someone up at the Pentagon to get their help. Those Jews know how to use their influence after all. Small-yield hydrogen bomb coming right up.

Felton’s explanation of the WTC attack was “overdetermined” in Althusserian terms. His main emphasis is on it being a “false flag” as the chapter on the WTC being titled “A New Pearl Harbor” would indicate. But he also believes that it might have been the intention of Silverstein and Lewis Eisenberg, the chairman of PATH, to blow up the buildings to get the insurance needed for a more profitable real estate development. In other words, these were a couple of sneaky Jewish landlords who hired people to destroy existing low-yield property just like happens when parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn become gentrified.

While Felton is committed to the idea that it was explosives in the basement that brought the towers down, others finger Ace, which had a maintenance contract on the elevators. This means that someone was assigned to push a button an hour or so after the planes crashed in order to detonate the explosives that led to the collapse. The problem with this is that a remote control operation like this is obviously based on a radio signal in the same fashion as an IED being set off by a cell phone like in Iraq. But when a plane smashes into the WTC, the damage is extensive. One of two things would likely happen. The flames from the crash would have detonated the explosives immediately or if not, they would have destroyed the radio receiver that would be used to detonate them. In other words, this was an operation that had zero possibility of succeeding in conspiratorial terms.

But going even further into cloud cuckoo land, consider the possibility that an elevator company that has been operating for some number of years prior to 9/11 would have been staffed by men who were secret agents willing to place explosives in the WTC that killed 3000 of their countrymen. You would imagine that these would be the kind of super-villains like in Bruce Willis’s “Die Hard”, nihilists ready to take part in a Pearl Harbor attack on their own country and at the same time experienced elevator mechanics. Can you imagine recruiting people for such a job?

ACE corporate recruiter: So, Joe, I see you were in the marines. Any particular skills you learned there?

Joe: I was trained in the use of explosives.

ACE corporate recruiter: Perfect. We’re staffing up for a project to bring down the WTC so that Bush will have the excuse he needs to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as help Larry Silverstein get the insurance payments he needs for a new real estate development. When can you start?

Joe: Um, I have to talk it over with my wife first since her dad works in the WTC. But I guess we’ll have no problems as long as the pay is good. We want to build a swimming pool in the back yard plus I have same sort of devil may care attitude as another marine named Lee Harvey Oswald.

But for sheer imagination, nothing can top Kevin Ryan’s four-part series “Demolition Access to the WTC Towers.”  This is a 94-page treatise that would have you believe that there were six degrees of separation between the Pope and Osama bin Laden.

Marsh & McLennan is an investment firm that lost all its employees on 9/11 when a plane hit the north tower. For Ryan, however, CEO Jeffrey Greenberg might have been part of the conspiracy along with ACE elevators and al-Qaeda since he was a member of the Brookings Institution, the Trilateral Commission, and the son of the chairman of American International Group (AIG), a firm reported to be at the center of a number of CIA operations.

Can you imagine the conversation between Jeffrey Greenberg and the CIA agent supervising the 9/11 attacks?

CIA biggie: Look, Jeffrey, we want to run something by you. The agency is part of a top-secret operation that will result in the WTC and the Pentagon being attacked and leveled to the ground on 9/11 with the loss of thousands of lives, including all the people who work for you at Marsh & McLennan. This is a big deal for America since we need an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq as part of an overall exercise to control oil resources everywhere.

Greenberg: Sounds good to me. I’ve gotten bored with the investment business anyhow and am thinking about starting a yoga ranch in the Hamptons. I’ll just make sure to call in sick that day.

In part two, Ryan explores the shady connections of the man who ran Kroll, the “Jewish security firm”. His name was Brian Michael Jenkins. While clearly not a Jew, there were all sorts of red flags associated with his career. He was “chairman of the RAND Corporation’s Political Science department and he directed RAND’s research on political violence. He also had served as a captain in the Green Berets in the Dominican Republic and later in Vietnam.” At the risk of sounding like I was part of the conspiracy myself, I would only point out that this is the typical CV for someone heading up a security firm, especially one that oversaw an obvious target like the WTC that had been attacked once before in 1993. What kind of prior work experience wouldn’t arouse Ryan’s suspicions? A lead guitarist for a punk rock band? A professional ice skater?

What seems beyond the realm of possibility for these people is that Islamic fundamentalists conspired to attack the WTC because of American support for the Saudi potentates, the Israeli apartheid state and other affronts to Muslims. Occam’s Razor states that simpler theories are preferable to more complex ones because they are more testable. In the case of 9/11, it is best to test what happened not so much on the basis of physics but on that of political plausibility. The Truthers strike me as people who have read far too many of those cheesy spy novels that you can find in airport magazine shops. They would be better off reading Karl Marx. In fact everybody would be. It is far more useful politically and more important than ever in a period of growing class struggle.


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