Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2019

Advice to Corey Robin: Don’t take lawyers at their word, especially Clarence Thomas

Filed under: Black nationalism — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

As I stated in a previous post, I am not sufficiently motivated  to read and review Corey Robin’s book on Clarence Thomas but I will continue to respond to his articles promoting it. In yesterday’s NY Times, he wrote an op-ed piece titled “Clarence Thomas Is Not a ‘Sellout’” that gave me a better handle on his flawed methodology. I am not sure whether he was responsible for the subhead to the article (“Whether or not you agree with his jurisprudence, it is rooted in a commitment to black people”) but it makes you wonder what the word “commitment” really means. For example, I’ve heard that Assad was committed to the Syrian people but on what basis? In politics, actions count much more than words and Thomas had a long-time record of opposing Black rights, such as terminating class-action suits against racist hiring practices when he headed the EEOC. This hurt Black workers whatever justification he gave.

The opening paragraph reflects the parameters of Robin’s interest in Clarence Thomas’s career:

Say the name “Clarence Thomas” in any liberal setting and the response is likely to be short and swift: “self-hating,” “stupid,” “sellout.”

But what about the radicals, especially Black radicals? Does Robin care what they think? In many ways, The Black Agenda Report founded by former Black Panther members is the voice of Black radicalism in the USA. In 2007, editor Glen Ford wrote an article titled “Clarence Thomas, the ‘Anti-Black’” that was likely ignored by Robin. Ford wrote:

Thomas is a perverse right-wing joke played on Blacks and, being of above average intelligence despite his mental illness, he knows it. But it is a knowledge he cannot endure, a burden that has made him a pathological liar, who blurts out contradictions so antithetical to each other that they cannot possibly coexist in the same brain without a constant roiling and crashing that puts him at flight from himself and all those who remind him of his now hopelessly entangled torments and tormentors.

Ford is right to refer to the contradictions that come out of Thomas’s mouth. That’s what you might expect from a lawyer who is trained to argue both sides of a case. Somehow, in writing a book about Thomas, Robin lost track of the fact that his subject was a lawyer, not some  kind of political philosopher. I will expand upon this momentarily.

We learn that Clarence Thomas has no illusions in the “colorblindness” that liberals uphold as a goal:

Yet Justice Thomas, who begins his 29th year on the Supreme Court in October, has always been leery of colorblindness. “Code words like ‘colorblind’ aren’t all that useful,” he declared in 1985. “I don’t think this society has ever been colorblind.”

In 1996, an African-American named Curtis Flowers was arrested for killing four people during a furniture store robbery. During six retrials in Mississippi, the prosecutors systematically kept Blacks from serving on the jury. Preemptory challenges were used to remove  41 of 42 prospective black jurors over the years. When Flowers’s defense attorney appealed to Mississippi’s Supreme Court, it might have been expected that they had no problem with a racially unbalanced jury.

Finally, the Supreme Court heard Mississippi vs. Flowers this year to decide whether this obvious refusal to be colorblind was legal or not. If Thomas was on record as stating that the USA was not colorblind, you’d think that he would have voted with the majority that declared Flowers not guilty because of irregularities in jury selection. But he did not. He agreed with the Mississippi Supreme Court that such preemptory challenges were legitimate.

Some legal analysts view Thomas siding with the white supremacists as being consistent with the Supreme Court’s 1992 precedent in Georgia v. McCollum, where it held that the Constitution forbids the defense as well as prosecutors from using peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner. In other words, it was based on the law existing in a colorblind society. So in opposing the majority opinion on Flowers, Thomas was drawing from a decision that went against his supposedly Black nationalist convictions that his brothers and sisters can’t get a fair shake. That’s a contradiction that a skilled lawyer would perhaps be able to resolve, even if it does not fit into Robin’s schema.

I imagine that most people reading Robin’s piece will not bother to look up his written statements on the cases referred to in the article. That’s too much to expect from the liberals who rely on the NY Times for analysis, especially the op-ed pieces that tilt leftward but not too far.

He asks us to consider the issue of eminent domain, when the government has the right to purchase private property for public use. Robin argues that “Justice Thomas opposes eminent domain not simply to protect the rights of private property, as most conservatives do. He also opposes it because he sees it as a tool of racial oppression.”

Out of curiosity, I read Thomas’s opinion in the case of Kelo vs. New London in which the majority upheld the right of New London, Connecticut to utilize eminent domain just like Columbia University did when it needed to expand into West Harlem (my office was the first one to relocate from the main campus.)

Sure enough, you can find Thomas sounding as if he still believed that stuff he read in Malcolm X 40 years ago:

Urban renewal projects have long been associated with the displacement of blacks; “[i]n cities across the country, urban renewal came to be known as ‘Negro removal.’ ” Pritchett, The “Public Menace” of Blight: Urban Renewal and the Private Uses of Eminent Domain, 21 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 1, 47 (2003). Over 97 percent of the individuals forcibly removed from their homes by the “slum-clearance” project upheld by this Court in Berman were black. 348 U.S., at 30. Regrettably, the predictable consequence of the Court’s decision will be to exacerbate these effects.

The minority report was consistent with this. It took the side of the poor against the rich. (It should be mentioned that Thomas also referred to Poles in Detroit getting screwed by GM in the same fashion.) In her statement on behalf of the four dissenting judges, Sandra Day O’Connor was just as eloquent:

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.

When you put this together with Thomas’s reference to “Negro removal”, you might conclude that in addition to him and O’Connor, a Reagan appointee but a moderate, you might find a couple of bleeding-heart liberals standing up for the rights of Blacks and other poor people.

It turns out that it was Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, who along with Thomas constituted the court’s conservative wing. Does anybody think that Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas had concerns about “large corporations” imposing their will on working-class people, and in Thomas’s case African-Americans?

The biggest eminent domain case today involves Trump’s border wall. To this point, none of the landowners on the border have sued to protect their land probably because there has not been a move yet by the White House to use it. However, the Supreme Court gave Trump the green light to reallocate Pentagon funds to build the wall against a decision made by a lower court to provide such an irregular executive decision that, like the unfolding Ukraine controversy, symbolizes Trump’s authoritarianism.

My guess is that Thomas might vote against the use of eminent domain just to appear consistent. Since the conservatives have all the votes they need to move ahead with the wall, this is not a problem. Given Thomas’s vote in favor of reallocating Pentagon funds, that’s all he’ll need to show the Tucker Carlsons of the world that he intends to Make American Great Again.

September 29, 2019

Taking Stock, Settling Accounts: Coming to Terms with Stalinism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 12:22 pm

via Taking Stock, Settling Accounts: Coming to Terms with Stalinism

September 27, 2019

The Johnson County War

Filed under: Counterpunch,farming,Film — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm


While channel surfing the other night, I was intrigued to see “Heaven’s Gate” playing on Showtime, Michael Cimino’s 1980 revisionist Western that many critics viewed as both a Marxist tract in the vein of Luchino Visconti and the greatest flop in Hollywood history. That the two views could be the most common refrains about the film tells you a lot about the spurious characterization of Tinseltown as “leftist”.

In a fascinating account of the film’s Hindenburg-like crash, “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists”, Stephen Bach describes how in his view a talented egomaniac brought down a legendary film studio that was launched by Charlie Chaplin and others to guarantee artistic independence. None of UA’s forefathers could have imagined that a Marxist-inspired film might be its undoing.

I saw “Heaven’s Gate” when it first came out in 1980 and made a case for it among my Trotskyist comrades who had little interest in films except for the usual Saturday night entertainment. “Heaven’s Gate” was a cinematic tour de force but hardly entertaining. It was a grim study of how class power in Johnson County, Wyoming ensured the victory of wealthy ranchers over small landowners who benefited from the Homestead Act of 1862 that was designed to build support for the Republican Party against Democratic Party plutocrats. Ironically, when the Johnson County War broke out in 1892, the Democrats were the party of the poor farmer with their presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan taking up their cause. All the big ranchers in Wyoming were rock-ribbed Republicans, just as they are today in most cases.

Continue reading

September 26, 2019

Trump-Zelensky phone conversation re-enacted

Filed under: Biden,Trump — louisproyect @ 1:26 pm

September 25, 2019

Hunter Biden and geopolitical myopia

Filed under: Biden,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:33 pm

Hunter Biden

Ever since the Euromaidan protests began in 2014, there have been thousands—maybe millions—of articles in outlets like The Nation, Consortium News, World Socialist Website, etc. making the case that a New Cold War pitted Washington, Wall Street and NATO against Russia. For the rather hysterical people gathered into the Socialist Equity Party’s ranks, there were even worries that this would not remain Cold but likely transformed into a nuclear holocaust.

While most of the attention has been paid in the last couple of days to Trump’s private foreign policy for cleansing Ukraine from corruption, my interest was less in his obviously hypocrisy but how Hunter Biden’s board membership in Burisma, an oil and gas company run by a Yanukovych ally, makes American designs on Ukraine less about the Cold War and more about making money.

In the sort of analysis you get from the Putinite left, the opposition to Euromaidan came from Russian-speaking workers in Eastern Ukraine who wanted to prevent Western corporations from attacking the wages and social benefits that were a legacy of the USSR. This meant making common cause with the oligarchs who backed Yanukovych. With their ownership of mines and smokestack industries in the East, they had a stake in keeping American and Western European corporations out. When Yanukovych decided against joining the EU, that confirmed in the eyes of many leftists that he was a fellow “anti-imperialist” even if he had his foibles, just like Bashar al-Assad.

That being the case, how does the son of the American vice-president end up on the board of Burisma, the symbol of pro-Russian, oligarchic resistance to Euromaidan? Just six months after the protests against Yanukovych began, Hunter Biden was added to the board of directors of Burisma, a post that would eventually pay him $50,000 a month for doing nothing. This would not be his last lucrative gig based on connections to people in high places. In 2013, he formed a private equity firm called Bohai with Chinese partners that relies heavily on cash infusion from the Bank of China. Among its investments is in a Chinese company that developed Face++, facial recognition software currently being used to finger Uyghurs.

Hunter’s successes appear to have serendipitous ties to his father’s foreign policy initiatives. The Washington Post reported on July 22nd this year:

Since then, much of Hunter Biden’s career has coincided with his father’s work as a senator and vice president. He has been a lobbyist for clients with interests before Congress; a senior vice president at a bank, MBNA, that was a major contributor to his father; and a board member of a company backed by Chinese entities, joining the firm just after his father met with leaders of that country.

All of those positions have led to criticism from Republicans, but it was Hunter Biden’s decision to join the board of Burisma Holdings that has drawn the heaviest fire.

While other people with a long-time cocaine habit like Hunter Biden’s tend to face obstacles in career development, especially when it leads to being discharged from the navy as happened to him after a 2014 drug test, his connections to the White House continued to open doors. While Fox News and other rightwing sources have been howling for his head, a careful reading of the liberal press, such as the Washington Post article above, will reveal that there is a lot of nervousness about the nepotism afforded a crack addict, especially a man who knows nothing about Ukraine. In a 28-page July 1, 2019 New Yorker article titled “Will Hunter Biden Jeopardize His Father’s Campaign?”, Adam Entous recounts the problematic character of the father and son’s interaction with both the government and Burisma:

Several former officials in the Obama Administration and at the State Department insisted that Hunter’s role at Burisma had no effect on his father’s policies in Ukraine, but said that, nevertheless, Hunter should not have taken the board seat. As the former senior White House aide put it, there was a perception that “Hunter was on the loose, potentially undermining his father’s message.” The same aide said that Hunter should have recognized that at least some of his foreign business partners were motivated to work with him because they wanted “to be able to say that they are affiliated with Biden.” A former business associate said, “The appearance of a conflict of interest is good enough, at this level of politics, to keep you from doing things like that.”

Making things even more dicey, Joe Biden put pressure on the Ukrainian government to fire the country’s top prosecutor Viktor Shokin who was looking into Burisma’s shady dealings. While Shokin had a well-deserved reputation for looking the other way when it came to oligarchic corruption, including in his slow-walking the Burisma investigation, there is always the suspicion that the VP wanted to short-circuit it. In fact, the over-arching reality is that Burisma cultivated imperialist figures despite its connections to the Eastern Ukraine oligarchy. In addition to Hunter Biden, it added Joseph Black to the board in February 2016. Black was a CIA director under George W. Bush, something that made no difference to Burisma.

Hunter Biden is not the only example of how foolish it is to use geopolitical reductionism to understand strange bedfellows in Ukraine. Generally, those who share a bed with someone supposedly on the other side of the barricades are more interested in making money than having sex.

Exhibit B would be Paul Manafort who is identified in many leftists’ mind with his ties to Yanukovych and hence to Putin. Much of Russiagate was based on the notion that Trump was being hounded by Democratic Party liberals because he sought rapprochement with Putin. With Manafort being an ally in this realignment, no wonder Robert Mueller went after him with a vengeance. He must have been watching Rachel Maddow every night.

But it turns out that Manafort was just a gun for hire. In 2014, during the heat of Euromaidan, he went to work for Yanukovych’s nemesis Petro Poroshenko as reported in a Ukrainian publication:

Paul Manafort, former campaign manager to US President Donald Trump, helped Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during the 2014 presidential elections.

This was revealed during Manafort’s former partner Rick Gates’ cross-examination in court on August 7, according to Ukrainian journalist Natalka Pisnya, who was at the Virginia court where the trial is taking place.

For all of the nonstop liberal attacks on Trump’s influence-peddling, nepotism, corruption, etc., is there much difference between donkey and elephant on business as usual? Trump talked about draining the swamp in 2016 but it will require a revolution rather than drainpipes to bring ruling-class exploitation of their control over the state power to end.

Adam Entous’s New Yorker article takes Peter Schweitzer’s investigations into the Bidens seriously even if he works for Breitbart News. In 2015, Schweizer wrote “Clinton Cash,” a book that dug into the Clinton Foundation’s dirty deals. There is little doubt that his reporting was exploited by Trump’s allies in Fox News. We can expect more of the same with respect to the Bidens this go-round. Here is Entous on Schweitzer:

In March of last year, Peter Schweizer, a conservative researcher and a senior editor-at-large at Breitbart, published “Secret Empires: How the American Political Class Hides Corruption and Enriches Family and Friends.” Schweizer is best known for “Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Clinton Rich,” which was released in May, 2015. Research for that book was funded by the Government Accountability Institute, which Schweizer co-founded, in 2012, with Stephen Bannon.

“Secret Empires,” which details Hunter’s activities in China and Ukraine, focusses on what Schweizer calls “corruption by proxy,” which he describes as a “new corruption” that is “difficult to detect” and that, though often legal, makes “good money for a politician and his family and friends” and leaves “American politicians vulnerable to overseas financial pressure.” Schweizer often relies on innuendo to supplement his reporting. At one point, he describes “one of the few public sightings” of Hunter in Beijing, when Hunter, “dressed in a dark overcoat,” followed Biden into a shop to buy a Magnum ice cream. “Intentionally or not,” Schweizer writes, “Hunter Biden was showing the Chinese that he had guanxi”—connections.

In the event that Biden is the nominee in 2020, you can expect the rightwing press to be harping on all this. If the Democratic Party, including its “democratic socialist” wing ends up trying to defend Biden from such smears, it will leave many young radicals as demoralized as they were in 2016. Our only hope is that the revolutionary-minded among us can rise to the occasion and yell bloody-murder at the electoral farce that will only end up leaving humanity and mother nature on the fast path to oblivion.


September 23, 2019

Clarence Thomas’s “Black nationalism”: a reply to Corey Robin

Filed under: Black nationalism — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

I had no plans to review Corey Robin’s new book about Clarence Thomas’s supposed Black nationalism, especially since I had devoted far too much time to reading and writing this year about Max Blumenthal’s “Management of Savagery’ and Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Utopia”, two other problematic works. But when I read a review of “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas” in BookForum, I decided to offer some alternative interpretations of Thomas’s career especially since Robin has linked him to Malcolm X in a 2014 Jacobin article:

Racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you also have to dig deep in order to see its full extent. The deeper you dig, the closer you get to its beating heart. The overt bigotry of the South is merely the surface; its true depths are to be found in the North. Not among the angry white faces throwing rocks in South Boston, but in the genteel white smiles of liberal institutions like Yale Law School, which Thomas attended.

In his memoir, which came out in 2007, Thomas described the difference thus:

At least southerners were up front about their bigotry; you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so the paternalistic big-city [northern and liberal] whites who offered you a helpful hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place. Like the water moccasin, they struck without warning.

If you’re hearing a distant echo in that comment, you should. Think back to that famous passage in Malcolm X’s “Chickens Come Home to Roost” speech:

The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.

Now I have no idea whether Robin deals with Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia (aka, Ginnni) in his book but I wonder if any Black nationalist—reactionary or revolutionary—would be married to a staff writer for The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s magazine. Among the people who have written for The Daily Caller is Jason Kessler who organized the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Another contributor to Carlson’s rag is Peter Brimelow, the founder of VDARE, a nativist and racist website that has published Steve Sailer. Writing for Taki’s white supremacist magazine, Sailer complained:

As the years roll on through the Obama Era and the evidence accumulates that the failure of blacks to catch up has less and less to do with white racism, the American media has become increasingly obsessed with pounding the drums over the sins of white people’s forefathers in the ever more distant past.

It turns out that this is not too far from Clarence Thomas’s brand of Black nationalism. Thomas does not blame white racism as responsible for Black oppression. Instead, it is Black people failing to become self-sufficient through old-fashioned entrepreneurialism that is the problem.

If you study the history of Black politics in the USA, you will see a tendency toward the same sort of thing the Nation of Islam was involved with in the sixties (and maybe still is, for all I know.) They sold bean pies and newspapers to help fund their mosques where denunciations of white racism were made by leaders like Malcolm X.

The difference between the Nation of Islam and Booker T. Washington self-help philosophy was paper-thin, Without the Nation’s pseudo-Islamic veneer and empty calls for separatism, Washington’s National Negro Business League—an early version of Richard Nixon’s call for Black capitalism—was based on Black people lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps. Washington operated out of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama.

In a 44-page article titled “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism”, Notre Dame law professor Stephen S. Smith covers the same ground as Robin but from a positive angle. Thomas’s opposition to affirmative action and other rightwing legal decisions demonstrated his “revolutionary” principles rather than marking him as a reactionary, like the liberal Corey Robin does. Among his “nationalist” Supreme Court rulings, according to Smith, was one that protected schools like Tuskegee from becoming integrated with other colleges in the South that had operated up until 1962 on a de jure [by law] segregation basis. The courts had concluded after the 1962 ruling, segregation had continued on a de facto basis. Thomas argued that even if this were the case, it was best to maintain the status quo in order to make sure that Tuskegee and other schools kept going. If this has something to do with Black nationalism, it escapes me.

As I stated above, I have no intention of reading Robin’s book. The goal of this article is only to alert those who do to keep a critical attitude. Let me conclude, however, with some thoughts on a long piece that Robin wrote for The New Yorker recently that encapsulates his approach.

Early on, Robin identifies his Big Idea:

On the Court, Thomas continues to believe—and to argue, in opinion after opinion—that race matters; that racism is a constant, ineradicable feature of American life; and that the only hope for black people lies within themselves, not as individuals but as a separate community with separate institutions, apart from white people.

It is not exactly clear where Robin got this notion of a “separate community” since Stephen S. Smith quotes to just the opposite effect from Thomas’s memoir My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir: “I never went along with the militant separatism of the Black Muslims, but I admired their determination to ‘do for self, brother,’ as well as their discipline and dignity….” As for “do for self” is concerned, that could apply to practically any Black millionaire, including Kanye West, a Trump fan.

We learn that when he was a student at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1971, Thomas helped organize the Black Student Union. Robin describes the program of the BSU, which stipulates that “The Black man does not want or need the white woman. The Black man’s history shows that the white woman is the cause of his failure to be the true Black man.” Evidently, this did not get in the way of him hooking up with Ginni. Robin observes, “Until 1986, when Thomas met Virginia Lamp, who is white and would become his second wife, he opposed interracial sex and marriage.” In making this decision, he must have seen her devotion to the Reagan revolution as far outweighing her white skin.

On the Malcolm X question, Robin points to his poster on Thomas’s dorm room and his collection of records of Malcolm’s speeches as proof of his early absorption of Black nationalist politics. Indeed, on the eve of his being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991, Thomas stated, “I don’t see how the civil-rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own. Where does he say black people should go begging the Labor Department for jobs? He was hell on integrationists. Where does he say you should sacrifice your institutions to be next to white people?”

As head of Reagan’s Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), Thomas made sure to respect his boss’s racist opposition to any government action that would put an end to white-only hiring practices. One of Thomas’s policies that helped undermine any serious assault on racist or sexist hiring practices was no longer allowing class action suits against employers. The LA Times reported in 1991, just as his nomination to the Supreme Court was being considered:

Thomas was rebuked by 43 congressmen when he abandoned the agency’s traditional reliance on class-action lawsuits in favor of individual cases. In a clear manifestation of Thomas’ philosophy, the switch represented a move away from the notion that classes of people are affected by discrimination and an emphasis on individual cases in which discrimination has been proven.

“I continue to believe that distributing opportunities on the basis of race or gender, whoever the beneficiaries, turns the law against employment discrimination on its head,” he wrote in a 1987 Yale Law Review article. “Class preferences are an affront to the rights and dignity of individuals.”

As part of the move away from class-action suits, employers found guilty of discrimination were no longer required to establish goals and timetables for hiring more workers from the affected group, such as blacks or women.

The goals issue was debated hotly within the commission. But Thomas prevailed by arguing that workers not affected directly by discrimination should not be helped.

Something tells me that Malcolm X would have had little sympathy for a measure that put Black people at a disadvantage when it came to being eligible for jobs other than sweeping the factory floor or cleaning the toilets. Of course, by 1991 this was not exactly the sort of thing Thomas had to put up with himself even if he suffered from extreme poverty when very young.

Repeating the business about Black nationalism being based on appreciating the KKK for its candor, etc. at the beginning of this article, Robin cites Marcus Garvey to the same effect:

 In making sincerity the litmus test of American racism, Thomas took a strand of the black nationalism that influenced his early development and wove it into an entire philosophy of race. In the nineteen-twenties, at an especially acute moment of racist reaction in the United States, Marcus Garvey also found comfort in the promise of candor. “They are better friends to my race for telling us what they are, and what they mean, than all the hypocrites put together,” Garvey said, of the Ku Klux Klan. “I like honesty and fair play.”

As long as he was bringing up Marcus Garvey, you might have hoped that he’d have connected the dots between the movements founded by Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad. All of them were based on the idea of self-sufficiency. Garvey read Washington’s “Up from Slavery” and became convinced that Black-owned enterprises were needed, including an “industrial farm” modeled on the Tuskegee Institute.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, the Black Panthers were showing what Black nationalism really meant. It wasn’t about bean pies, “industrial farms” or abolishing class-action law suits against racist corporations. It was about Black control of the Black community, especially replacing the cops with armed community militias.

Returning to the BookForum review of Robin’s book that prompted this post, the question of armed self-defense crops up:

Robin’s interpretation is useful in accounting for some of Thomas’s seeming contradictions. Though not always a champion of individual rights, Thomas is attached to the Second Amendment because a right to bear arms is crucial for an embattled minority in an incorrigibly racist state.

After reading this, I decided to research Thomas and write this article since it seemed to be so unlikely that a rightwing slug like Clarence Thomas would invoke Robert F. Williams or Huey Newton when it came to justifying owning semi-automatic rifles. Everything told me that it was constitutional “originalism” of the Antonin Scalia variety that was responsible for Thomas’s rulings.

After the Parkland Massacre, the Supreme Court ruled that a 10-day waiting period for purchasing a weapon in California was legal. Thomas was the sole dissenter. You can read his opinion here. If you can find any reference to an “an embattled minority in an incorrigibly racist state”, I’ll make a fifty dollar contribution to the Bernie Sanders campaign in your name.

For that matter, a search for “Clarence Thomas and Second Amendment and racist” turned up nothing in Lexis-Nexis as well. Maybe Robin found something to back that up. If you read his book and come across it, drop me a line.

September 21, 2019

Scathing review of Max Blumenthal’s “Management of Savagery” and Verso’s standards

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 1:17 pm

From the September 20, 2019 Times Literary Supplement

Apparently, the jpeg below is difficult to read. Therefore, I am posting text beneath it that should be clear.

Blame game
A problematic approach to the modern Middle East

Max Blumenthal
THE MANAGEMENT OF SAVAGERY How America’s national security state fueled the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump
400pp. Verso. £18.99. 978 I 78873 229 1

It is easy to blame the United States for many of the world’s ills: easy because of the availability of evidence. It is also easy to overstate your case, with misleading or one-sided examples —the trap that Max Blumenthal falls into in The Management of Savagery. Fortunately, what many will see as propaganda, sketching the role of the US in the recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, tips sufficiently and with enough regularity into full-scale conspiracy to allow any careful reader to dismiss it. A spot of fact-checking quickly furthers the case against it. Less happily, this book raises serious questions about the reputation of its publisher, Verso. Did no one care to send the manuscript out for checking?

Detailed analysis of all the errors would require a short book in itself, so a small sample will have to suffice. Charles Lister is a researcher of Syrian opposition groups; he is seemingly targeted in these pages, and the following mistakes all occur over just four pages dedicated to him. The Amnesty report Blumenthal quotes, “revealing” Lister’s apparent knowledge in 2015 of an extremist sheikh’s actions, is from 2016 and not 2014 (ie he didn’t know). Blumenthal claims David Cameron relied on an article written by Lister in the Spectator (in November 2017), despite the fact the article came out after Cameron’s speech. There is a mistake in the order of events between the US sending anti-tank weapons to opponents of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and the US Democrats asking Congress for money to do so. The money was actually authorized for training, not weapons. There is the author’s reporting of an argument Lister made for sup-plying weapons to groups “like Zinki” —though Zinki had been removed from the approved list by Lister by this point. Blumenthal uncritically reports the claims by a Pentagon spokesman that Aleppo had been held by Jabhat al-Nusra, despite the fact this was corrected later by CENTCOM (US Central Command). There is the claim, made twice, that Lister did his research in Riyadh (he is at one point described as being at “a luxury hotel in Riyadh”): in fact the first and only time Lister went to Saudi Arabia was in 2017, many years after the research detailed by Blumenthal.

Then there is the author’s treatment of opinions he disagrees with, his tendency to attack the person rather than the content of what they are saying. At one point he refers to the “vehemently anti-Russian Washington Post correspondent, Anne Applebaum” — surely in order to impugn the credibility of Applebaum’s husband (Rudoslaw Sikorski). He appears less demanding of his own sources, by contrast, neglecting, for example, to mention that Kevork Almasian, who claims that the rural protests in Syria were from the beginning dominated by Islamists, works for the far-right party AfD in Germany and for the Kremlin-backed think tank Katehon, created by the fascist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin; in fact, Almasian’s name is buried in footnotes, as are many others who agree with Blumenthal. They do not receive the same level of scrutiny in the text.

Blumenthal’s portrayal of the notorious chemical attack on East Ghouta in Syria in 2013 uses long-debunked myths — emanating from both the Syrian regime and Russia — to claim that Assad did not carry out the attack; the author apparently ignores all the evidence amassed to counter his claim. When he does praise the US, it is for the wrong reasons. He calls President Obama’s response to East Ghouta, brokered by Russia, of backing down from military intervention in return for Assad’s promise to dispose of Syria’s stock-pile of chemical weapons, a “rare example of de-escalation in a war zone”. This ignores the fact that killings by Assad’s regime went up when it became clear that the US was wary of intervention, not even in the face of war crimes and Obama’s own “red line”. Blumenthal’s take on the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun in 2017, which prompted a rare intervention by Western powers, assumes a different line: he simply sketches a conspiracy almost by innu-endo, referring airily to “an unusual procedure for the treatment of sarin victims” (“splashing water on writhing children … White Helmets treating victims without gloves”), rather than directly meeting the challenge of refuting the abundant evidence of the attack.

Perhaps the most absurd position Blumenthal forces himself into is his vilification of those seeking to intervene for humanitarian reasons, a standpoint “enabling them to mask imperial designs behind a patina of ‘genocide prevention”‘. How terrible it must be to be the kind of person who wants to prevent genocide, or, in the case of Syria, the “crime of extermination” according to the UN (because genocide is against one specific group of people and Assad was found guilty —by the Human Rights Council — of targeting a whole country). Blumenthal continues: “With this neat tactic, they [the interventionists] effectively neutralized progressive anti-war elements and tarred those who dared to protest their wars as dictator apologists”. This description extends to the late Labour MP Jo Cox, a “self-proclaimed feminist”, in Blumenthal’s description, who, with this position of “military humanism”, fuelled the civil war and thus the refugee crisis and thus the far right, which, the author almost seems to imply, gave rise to her own murder. What we should say about dictators is an awk-ward question for Blumenthal, who, in his lengthy analysis of Syria, neglects to analyse Assad’s role in the carnage (over 90 per cent of civilian deaths in Syria over the past eight years have been attributed to the Syrian president’s forces and his allies). Further, he omits to discuss the champions of this dictator: there is barely a mention of Russia’s and Iran’s bolstering of the brutal regime, let alone their direct participation in the civil war, despite Syria occupying the majority of The Management of Savagery (a rare example comes when Russia is praised for “rolling back jihadist insurgents” — Assad’s own excuse for the interminable violence). For Blumenthal, it would seem, intervention is only bad when conducted by the US and its allies; the US alone destabilized the Middle East, and no one else bears any responsibility at all.

A major weak point in the argument, even on Blumenthal’s own terms, is the lack of coherent explanation for this thirst for foreign invasion. Why does the endless parade of Americans in this book, from across the political spectrum, hunger so insatiably for war? The confusion partly arises out of the author’s failure to define the blanket terms he uses: “imperialist” and “neoconservative” (even “neocon democrat”) ambitions are bandied around as if these in themselves were powerful enough concepts to explain everything.

Another mistake Blumenthal falls into in every aspect of his analysis is more common to Western commentaries on the Middle East: denying any agency to the people on the ground. There is no credence given to the fact that Syrians themselves protested and took up arms against Assad for their own reasons, and not just to fulfil America’s foreign policy agenda (Blumenthal takes care to refer to the “Western-backed opposition to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad”). Similarly, in his analysis of Libya, Blumenthal’s denial of the rebels’ stated aims of gaining basic democratic rights leads him to rely on evidence from the Gaddafi family to depict the apparent stability and harmony of the country before Western arrogance took a hand. He seems blind to the motivations of the millions of Arabs desperate to see the back of the Libyan dictator.

Publishers, especially those with illustrious histories, have a responsibility for what they put their stamp on, and with this book Verso has torn a hole in its reputation. The overarching argument shoehorns history into unrecognizable shapes; the fact-checking has clearly not been as it should; even the copy-editing seems to have been skimped on, judging by the number of typos. But even more worrying than these basic failures in publishing a meaty, non-fiction book is the apparent lack of concern about the controversy surrounding the author himself. As the NYRB Daily noted last year (October 16, 2018), Blumenthal’s views on Syria “completely flipped” in 2015. Having previously been critical of Assad’s Russia-sponsored regime, he seemed to have performed a volte-face. Blumenthal now regularly retweets pro-Kremlin sources. Targets of his Twitter comments include an eight-year-old girl (Bana Alabed) living in rebel-held Aleppo, who ran an account of the siege with her mother. According to Blumenthal: “Alabed & the White Helmets [were building] on a grand tradition of pro-war psy-ops” in their first-hand reports.

A comprehensive list of rebuttals to an earlier article of Blumenthal’s with similar views was collected at the blog Hummus for Thought (October 5, 2016). It began with an impassioned plea from the Syrian Marcell Shehwara for readers to start listening to Syrians themselves, rather than dismissing them as stooges, as Blumenthal does. There are many similar take-downs of Blumenthal’s work online. It doesn’t take much digging to realize how many people question the author’s work.

Verso’s choice to continue to publish Max Blumenthal (see also the Verso-published The 51 Day War: Resistance and ruin in Gaza, 2015) therefore seems perverse, casting doubt on the entire stable of authors in this field. There are also the moral implications of this book: there is the danger that such arguments can be used by others to legitimize violence against secular and humanitarian actors in a number of theatres of conflict, thus fuelling the conflicts themselves.


September 20, 2019

See “Official Secrets”

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

via See “Official Secrets”

This Land

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm


Christopher Ketcham’s “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” is a politically explosive and beautifully written chronicle of the ongoing struggle to preserve publicly owned land in the West. This is home to iconic endangered species such as the grizzly bear, the wolf, and the wild horse. Much of the left is rightfully fixated on the horrifying prospects of Bolsonaro giving the green light to ranchers, miners, oil companies and farmers to ravage the Amazon rainforest. Now it is time that we took a stand against the same kind of devastation taking place on American soil. If it was up to Donald Trump and the “liberal” Democrats like Obama who paved the way for him, all of the land that had been protected under successive presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon (yes, that’s right) will face the same fate.

In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Congress to set aside such land for public ownership, “socializing” it in effect. Under the aegis of the Forest Service, millions of acres were to be protected from profit-seeking enterprises with exceptions made for raising cattle but under strict limits. Despite his wanton appetite for shooting large animals (shared by Ernest Hemingway), Roosevelt was so alarmed by the loss of wilderness that he would write these prescient words: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

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September 18, 2019

Smash the two-tier labor system!

Filed under: trade unions — louisproyect @ 9:34 pm

I first became aware of the two-tiered wage system in 1997 when UPS workers, organized by the Teamsters, went on strike to challenge the growing reliance on part-time workers who earned only $8 per hour. In a good article on the strike for Jacobin, Joe Allen, who worked for UPS for a decade, summed up the victory that a militant, 1930s-type struggle had won:

The company reached a tentative agreement with the Teamsters on August 20, 1997, fifteen days after the strike began. UPS agreed to the union’s main demands to create ten thousand full-time jobs out of low-wage part-time positions, the largest wage increases in UPS history, and protection against subcontracting of union jobs. The company also backed off its plan to hijack the full timers’ pension fund.

Ron Carey hailed the agreement as an “historic turning point for working people in this country. American workers have shown they can stand up to corporate greed,’” he said.

It was the biggest labor victory in a generation and led many people to believe that the US labor movement was finally poised for a dramatic comeback. Referring to the aftermath of the air traffic controllers’ strike smashed by Ronald Reagan in 1981, historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote that the strike ended “the PATCO syndrome, a sixteen-year period in which a strike was synonymous with defeat and demoralization.”

As it happened, Lichtenstein was wildly over-optimistic. Instead, since 1996 the two-tier system has continued and deepened as a way of keeping workers divided. Even the bourgeois Washington Post allows Jacobin editor Alex Press to take note of this in August 2018 despite Jeff Bezos’s embrace of what might be called a one-tier system that screws everybody working for him. Press writes:

“Two-tier” refers to contracts that divide a workforce into distinct wage and benefit tiers based on their hiring date. Workers in both tiers are union members, but they toil under separate conditions. Usually, the lower-paid tier comprises workers to be hired after the contract’s negotiation, leaving them little recourse, even as they are forced to accept lesser terms.

The latest two-tier crisis centers on one of the United States’ largest private-sector unionized employers, UPS. If the company gets its way, it will be a signal to employers nationwide: You can’t directly bust your employees’ union, but here’s a way to divide and conquer, undermining them from within and locking in division between workers in the process.

Ironically, despite a majority of UPS members rejecting a contract that would continue to make concessions to the boss on part-timers, it was ratified anyway. A Teamster vote is only official if it has a certain percentage of members voting and in this case it was beneath that threshold. The vote remained low for obvious reasons. The Teamsters Union is a bureaucratic nightmare and most workers would rather stay at home watching a football game than vote. This wasn’t the case in 1997 when a reformer like Ron Carey led the union. But after he was forced out for campaign irregularities, Jimmy Hoffa Jr. took over and turned into what it is today, a typical business union.

No doubt the men running the UAW are not much different from Hoffa, probably worse. Despite this, the UAW is on strike now with the two-tier wage system being a primary grievance. Once again, Jacobin, despite its woeful tail-ending of the Democratic Party, continues to be a useful source of left analysis of working-class struggles. Jane Slaughter, a long-time journalist on trade union struggles, has an article titled “GM Workers Strike Against Low Wages and Two-Tier Contracts” that is worth reading. She writes about the boiling discontent at the shop-floor level that finally put sufficient pressure on the stiffs at the top to call a strike:

GM was bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of $50 billion in 2009. It made over $8 billion in profits last year, while paying no federal income taxes yet gifting CEO Mary Barra $22 million. For GM to demand concessions from its overworked employees now is a sign that it thinks the UAW is an easy foe.

After all, UAW president Gary Jones may be distracted. His house and that of former president Dennis Williams were both searched by the FBI on August 28. Jones’s top lieutenant before he became president, Vance Pearson, was charged with using union funds for personal luxuries, and it’s widely believed that Jones and Williams will be next. Pearson was the sixth UAW official to be recently charged or convicted of graft.

Crawford said as the strike kicked off, “Yes, the UAW is corrupt. It’s disgusting beyond belief. But this is not about them. It’s about us. We can and will clean house. But we have a more immediate fight on our hands right now.”

Undoubtedly, the UAW strike is a reflection of a change in the relationship of class forces with teachers, airline attendants, grocery store and hotel workers raising hell. It is difficult to gauge where this is all going but it just might be the actual break in the status quo that Nelson Lichtenstein wrote about in 1997.

For background on how the UAW, one of the most militant unions of the 1930s, became so bureaucratically degenerated, I recommend Michael Yates’s Monthly Review article titled “Who Will Lead the U.S. Working Class” from 2013. It is a review of two books about the trade union movement with Gregg Shotwell’s “Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream” most relevant to its current sorry state. Michael writes:

Union givebacks ultimately led to the decimation of the UAW during the Great Recession. GM and Chrysler declared bankruptcy, and the federal government demanded—and received—draconian concessions from the union in return for a bailout, in which the owners suffered nothing. And in a final blow to workers and the union, partnership and the resultant worker demoralization helped make possible the recent enactment of a right-to-work law in Michigan, the very cradle of industrial unionism.

Throughout all of this, the automobile manufacturers continued unilaterally to pursue their interests. While the union bashed the Japanese, the corporations partnered with Japanese companies. They took the profits they made from union concessions and invested them in foreign operations, which, the author informs readers, are now the major source of their profits, and where corporate assets are not subject to U.S. bankruptcy laws. They began to spin off their parts components, converting them into quasi-independent corporations that now supplied modular components to them (such as steering wheel assemblies and seats). These new entities either operated union-free or, with UAW cooperation, remained union but with much lower wages and benefits, and weaker work rules.

Although not the lunch-bucket stereotype of the old left’s concept of the working class, the members of the Professional Staff Congress in New York, including my wife, are also dealing with a two-tier wage system. CUNY (the City University of New York) relies heavily on adjuncts and they are like the underpaid part-time workers at UPS but put in the same hours as tenured professors like my wife.

James Hoff, who teaches English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and is tenured himself, has been an untiring advocate for raising the pay and benefits of adjuncts. He has an article in Left Voice titled “Will CUNY Go on Strike?” that is must-reading. His article begins:

More than two years ago, rank and file members of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union of the City University of New York began to organize around a set of bold demands for worker equality. At the center of these demands was a call for a minimum $7,000 per three-credit course for adjunct faculty—an amount that would bring them close to parity with their full-time colleagues. Long exploited by management, the use of underpaid adjunct faculty at CUNY has increased dramatically over the last several decades, creating a two-tier wage system that has undermined the PSC’s ability to fight for more funding for the university and divided the union. Recognizing the transformative nature of the demand, which would require a complete restructuring of the university, activists began to rally around the slogan “$7K or Strike!” ($7KOS). These rank and file union members, many of them adjuncts themselves, argued that the most effective way to approach such a demand and still win a good contract for the rest of the bargaining unit, was to begin the negotiations on a militant footing and quickly move toward organizing the membership for a confrontation with management that included the credible threat of a strike.

Even though a strike would present challenges to my wife and me, this is a fight we would gladly take part in. Just two years before she finished her Ph.D. in 2007, she began working as an adjunct at Metropolitan College. In a stroke of luck, she got a tenure-track position at Lehman College that was arduous to say the least. Just two years ago, she became tenured and protected from the vicissitudes of adjuncthood and the tenure-track. I feel a deep solidarity with CUNY adjuncts as should be obvious from this article and wish them victory.


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