Sunday, March 26, 2017

On an Emotional Edge

“Hillbilly Elegy – a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance

This book is a memoir of a still young man about his life in Middletown, Ohio, and its roots in the coal country of southeastern Kentucky, just north of Harlan.   Vance became a marine, then a Yale Law school graduate and lawyer, and is now a boss in a Silicon Valley investment firm.  So the book reads like a twisted Horatio Alger tale, as his early life could have led him into addiction, unemployment or jail instead.  Vance’s ultimate point is that there is something wrong with ‘hillbillies’ (his word) that jobs or education or a better social structure won’t help.  He wants hill people to stop blaming government or businesses and look at themselves.  As such, Vance is another in a long line of people focusing on the ‘culture’ of poverty.  But this time he’s white.  This fits into a narrative that upscale conservatives have been pushing for several years now.

To start, there is no such thing as the ‘white’ working class, a phrase he uses frequently.  There are white people in different strata of the working class that come from different geographies.  The impact of the 40-year decline in real wages and solid blue-collar jobs is now impacting layers of the working class that never had to deal with it.   And this is happening especially in Appalachia, which had poverty even in the ‘go-go’ 1960s.  It is now being decimated, as are many other rural towns and “Rust Belt” blue-collar cities like Middleton, where Vance’s family moved.  Vance frequently compares some of the impacts of his life story to what also happens to black people, and that is certainly legitimate.  Economics knows no ethnic barriers when it decides to make itself known. 
AK Steel in Middletown, OH where Pawpaw worked
Vance’s narrative is not really about Appalachia, but about the people that left it.   The migration looking for work from the South to the North in the 1920s and 1960s didn’t just a happen to black people.  It included many Appalachian Scots-Irish families who wanted a better life, and moved north above Cincinnati on the ‘hillbilly highway.’  Vance’s grandfather (Pawpaw) got a job in the AK steel mill and they and many others were able to buy cars, homes and ‘stuff’ that would have been impossible in Breathitt County, Kentucky.  But they brought with them cultural values that clashed with those in their new northern communities.   

Vance insists that the Appalachians were different from the Ohio working class as their culture was far more extreme – though I do not see any comparisons in this book.  Vance’s mother became a drug addict; his steel-worker grandfather was an alcoholic.  The families engaged in constant violent arguments - yelling, hitting and getting arrested.  Strangers who insulted their ‘honor’ drew fights.  ‘Hillbillies’ were always praising ‘work’ verbally but some did not want to work at all.  For males, education and wimping out on a fight to defend one’s ‘honor’ was ‘sissy,’ though his own grandmother and mother encouraged him to do well in school.  Vance’s mother ran through a long string of boyfriends and ‘husbands’ to the point where he had to move constantly from one house to another.  This instability was particularly damaging. Early pregnancies, dropping out of school, early drug use, large quantities of guns, arrests - all typical markers.  

This is where Vance’s story is valuable, as it describes the difficulties of growing up ‘hillbilly.’ The constant instability and emotional stress contributed to many human failures.  Things like doing a budget, not blowing money on Xmas presents and buying things carefully; what food was healthy; how ‘social capital’ works or wearing a suit to certain job interviews were beyond his experience.  His life at Yale was as a token working-class student with a southern accent who basically got to hobnob with very rich students and top professors through Yale’s generous endowment.  Yet it still never made him feel like he belonged.  He sees that the culture of the wealthy that he now inhabits and the one he came from are almost completely separate.  Vance pinpoints his grandmother (Mamaw) as the key to his survival – a swearing, gun-toting woman who stood by him, especially in the last 3 years in high-school when he left his mother to live with her.  He credits her with his ability to become an ‘anomaly’ in his community – not just one of the only ones to go to college, but the Ivy League at that.   

Vance is now a conservative – but perhaps one that thinks he is ‘compassionate.’  He supports pay-day lenders, for instance, because they provide a ‘valuable service’ to impoverished people who have no family or money to turn to.  Not a word about their extortionate interest rates or perhaps an alternative like Post Office loans.  Vance has written for the National Review, an arch intellectual journal of the elite.  He went to Iraq as a PR officer and has not one negative word to say about that disastrous war or the billions doled out to war profiteers.  He just felt lucky that he wasn’t Iraqi.  (You want to see poverty, he muses…)  Ostensibly a man of the world, he still calls the U.S. the ‘best country in the world” and seemingly wants to ‘lift up’ his people… sort of a George Washington Carver of Appalachia.  He is an atheist that upholds the church as a possible savior, given it is about the only institution in some towns that can provide practical help to parishioners - and only hints that its irrationalism is part of the problem.  Vance celebrates the Marine Corps for teaching him things he never learned at home, but ignores its real role in the world.  To Vance the lack of coal mining jobs does not mean that government should have a program to provide guaranteed jobs for coal miners, such as installing solar or wind or maintaining infrastructure.  Not a word.  

Vance’s approach ignoring economics will ultimately fail, as you cannot pull yourself up ‘by your bootstraps.’  Try it sometime – you body doesn’t get lifted, only your boot.  Culture is a condition of economic life and, while mobility is possible, even he recognizes that it is now less possible in the U.S.  Working class life in Appalachia is one of the hardest in U.S. rural areas… the recent opioid / suicide / alcohol statistics show that.  Yet conditions in Appalachia come in second to rural areas in Mississippi, Alabama and other southern states with large black populations.  ‘Hillbilly’ culture comes with cultural, emotional and educational baggage that cannot be changed overnight just by getting a job.  Because sometimes ‘emotional poverty’ can lead a person to lose that job, and those stressors do not go away.  Oppression oppresses…   

What is apparent from the book is that, while having a job is not a magic bullet, having one provides economic stability which can translate into emotional stability.  It is no accident that conditions in Middletown have become worse as AK Steel has downsized.  The two interact dialectically, but one cannot exist without the other.  Ultimately, cultural conditions for Appalachia cannot change until there is a movement that politically unites these communities against capital.  As you might remember, nobody was bitching about opioid use during the battle of Blair Mountain.  Class struggle brings out the best in people.

Reviews of books on a similar topic, below:  White Trash,”Chavs,” “Rich People Things,” “Class Lives,” “Factory Days,” “Gray Mountain.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
March 26, 2017

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Intentional or Not?

“The Death of the Nation – and the Future of the Arab Revolution,” by Vijay Prashad, 2016.

Prashad is a leftist historian and journalist closely linked to Marxist ideas.  This book is a reportorial journey through the recent bloody history of Egypt, Syria, Libya and Turkey. The sorry events in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine, Chad, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan & Afghanistan hover on the edges.  Its focus is on the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” which has been defeated by the forces of reaction in the Middle East and their imperial backers. 
Libya: Creating failed states, one bombing and intervention at a time
What is most noted after reading this is the key role of Saudi Arabia & Qatar in destroying the left and even Arab nationalists in the Middle East, and their subsequent building of a sectarian religious politics rooted in Wahabbist-Salafist doctrines.  This is the same policy followed by the U.S. government - its own version of ‘identity politics.'  Prashad’s basic thesis in this book is that Arab nationalism, strong under Nasser and various other 3rd world leaders like Qaddafi, is now completely shattered.  States have been destroyed, to be replaced by various versions of Sunni or Shia sectarian dictators or warlords.  All of this masks the rule of the oil kingdoms in the Gulf and their block with the U.S. and Europe. Prashad says the book is about ‘…the slow political death of Arab nationalism in the fires of sectarian war.”  He further states:  “…it is a counterrevolution funded by petrodollars.” 

The political logic here is that even a return to nationalism would be a step forward.  However nationalism and ‘anti-imperialism’ have already failed if you consider that the present is the result of their replacement. Or that some of the nations ‘formed’ might not even be real nations at all.  Like Samir Amin, Prashad 'might' hanker after a return to ‘Bandung style anti-imperialism - but he does not embrace that.  He does not define what should be the content of the new Arab revolution.  Perhaps Arab nationalism itself has come up short in an increasingly totalitarianizing, neo-liberal and imperialist world.  Nor is it clear in the book that the destruction of these states is intentional.  But given the track record, you can only conclude that it has been beneficial to international capital.  Yes, it wasn't about stupidity or militarism run amok, though those certainly play a role.

I will cite some facts in the book that are illuminating or that we should not forget:

1. Daesh (Prashad calls it ISIS throughout the book) is a product of the U.S. war on Iraq.  Daesh = Blowback.  Prashad:  “The ‘war on terror’ did not erase the terrorists; it manufactured them.” 
2. In his reading of the successful overthrow of the Tunisian dictator, it was the Tunisian working class through their unions that provided the anchor upon which the political revolution and its aftermath became successful.
3. The World Muslim League was founded in 1962, with complete U.S. support.  The WML worked to oppose secularism, Arab nationalism and socialism, seeing them as ‘anti-Islamic.’
4. The Muslim Brotherhood became an asset to Western intelligence in the fight with Arab nationalism and socialism.  A section of the Brotherhood in Egypt later split to form one of the roots of Al Qaeda. The links between Islamic political organizations and the U.S. is long.
5. The rebellion in Egypt was sparked by youth, organized labor and the precariat in the slums.  One key organization was the 6 April Youth Movement, which joined with striking textile workers on 6 April 2008.  This was an example of a ‘worker-student’ alliance.  Prior to that, 2 million workers went on strike in 2006 in Egypt and there were later strikes in 2007.  In Tunisia, the initial cadre of the rebellion were the Gafsa phosphate workers, who went on strike in 2008 – mostly young men.  These proletarian roots are ignored by the bourgeois press. 
6.  Youth form the recruits for many movements in the Arab world, given the high levels of unemployment in all kinds of occupations.  This is the economic cause of many of the conflicts – an economic, not a religious detail that cannot be overlooked. 
7.  Liberals, as shown in Libya and Egypt, cannot handle either military dictators or Islamist radicals, and must lean on dictators or the West.  They have no consequential independent forces in Arab countries. 
8.  The leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini:  “Economics is for donkeys.”  Actually, the mullahs were backed by businessmen in Iran. 
9.  At one point in the 1970s-1980s, Communist Parties had strong roles in many Arab countries.  In the Sudan, the CP was the largest in Africa.  As Prashad points out, even the nationalists imprisoned and sometimes killed them. 
10.  A Pakistani governor, Babar, was one of the key players in the creation of the “mujahedeen’ in Afghanistan.  As Prashad says:  “The line between Babar’s creation – with Saudi and U.S. assistance – to the mayhem in Iraq, Syria and Libya is unbroken.”  Thank you, Jimmy Carter. 
11. The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia – disguised as a religious one – is really over who shall dominate the Middle East and its oil.
12. In 2014, the Iraqi government under al-Maliki overturned Law No. 188, which “gave Iraqi women the greatest freedom in the Arab world.”
13. “Syria, where the educational systems had once been the pride of the Arab world, now sees children oscillating between trauma and illiteracy.” 
14. In Syria, “There is no longer any reliable force that carries the ‘moderate’ banner for the West.”
15.  Prashad has good things to say about the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).  40% of the PKK-allied Peoples Protection Units (YPG) are made up of women fighters. 
16. The Russians and various journalists tracked Turkish support for Daesh, Al Nusra (the Al Qaeda section in Syria) and other Saudi/Qatari backed units fighting in Syria, including involvement of Erdogan’s son, Bilal. Airplanes, oil transfers, weapons, food, ammunition and fighters found easy transit across the Turkish border.  As a Kurdish PKK leader said”  “Turkey is to Syria what Pakistan was to Afghanistan.” 
17. Qaddafi was trying to organize an African currency union in 2012, which threatened French imperial investments in their former African colonies.  NATO pounded Libya with 10,000 sorties, destroying the Libyan state and much of its infrastructure. Hillary Clinton was the main U.S. mover behind this crime and the resulting takeover of a good chunk of Libya by Al Qaeda and Daesh.  THIS should have been the focus of the ‘Benghazi’ hearings.   
18.  As an example, 30,000 black people that ‘might’ have been supporters of Qaddafi in the city of  Tawergha were expelled from the city by Arab Islamist militias, with no peep on ‘ethnic cleansing’ by NATO.  Liberals believing in women’s rights in Libya are also killed, also with no mention.
19.  All prior attempts at negotiations re Libya by the African Union, Brazil’s president de Silva, Latin American states and even the Arab League were ignored by NATO.
20.  Erdogan was briefly jailed in Turkey in 1998 for ‘inciting hatred based on religious differences.”  Turkey’s application to join the EU was a cover to insulate his political party from a coup by the secularist Turkish military.  It succeeded. 
21. The Turkish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is similar to Podemos or Syriza, combining many different left and pro-Kurdish views.  This was the party that Erdogan has basically outlawed.  The Turkish CP, formed in 2014, stands apart from the HDP.

The book reads easily, is detailed, reflecting a large breadth of knowledge on the forces, figures and events that have shaped the region since 2011.  A good round-up of the vicious conflicts in the Arab world, even for those who are familiar with it already. 

Reviews and commentaries of similar interest, below:  Rojava,”Female Genital Mutilation,”What is the War on Terror?”, “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,”Charlie Hebdo,” “Dirty Wars,” “The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism” and “Russia and the Long Transition From Capitalism to Socialism. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
March 19, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bits & Pieces, Part Deux

Bits & Pieces – the “Ark” of Culture Edition

Arrival” film by Denis Villeneuve.  Intelligent female linguist meets ugly but advanced aliens, who transmit the secret of all bogus science fiction – ‘linear time does not exist.’  Back to the future, Marty!
Fences” film by Denzel Washington.  Force-of-nature black garbage man gives his wife and children pain. No wonder Denzel cringed at the Academy awards when he lost.
South Korea's Idea of a cultural "Arc"
Citizen” a play at the Frank Theater.  Micro-aggressions fail to link to macro-aggressions. Poetic methods in vain.
Anna in the Tropics,” a play at the Jungle Theater.  Cuban cigar rollers listen to ‘Anna Karenina’ and unfortunately reflect its melodrama. A thin tale, oddly praised.

Vikings,” series on History Channel.  A little bit of paganism goes a long way.  Get on the long-ships with Ragnar Lothbrok!
Black Sails” series on Starz.  Rebellion in the Bahamas against British rule prior to the American Revolution led by pirates and escaped slaves.  Real and literary pirates abound.

Purge,“ book by Sofi Oksanen.  An Estonian woman survives Stalinist rape and capitalist pimps over 50 years.  Slow going, especially for her.
Independent People,” book by Halldor Laxness.  A harrowing socialistic tale of rural Icelanders braving poverty, the elements and the ‘spirits.’  Shades of O.E. Rolvaag and Knut Hamsun and the Scandinavian immigrants of Minnesota.

MBongwana Star,” at the Cedar.  Kinshasa street musicians rock out, then high-life their Afro-pop.  Wheelchairs no problem.
Blue Oyster Cult and Mark Farner of Grand Funk” at the Medina. Retro ethereal metal and heavy Flint Michigan make a geezer return.   Fear the Reaper! 

Red Frog / March 16, 2017

Monday, March 13, 2017

Chunking & Lunking

Bits and Pieces:

Finance:  A. “Animal spirits” are back on Wall Street.  Irrational exuberance is 'justified.Which means look out.  B. Banks don't care if you can pay your debts.  They only want the interest. Look at mortgages for an example.  (The latter point by Trotskyist economist Michael Hudson.)  Islands like Puerto Rico, nations like Greece or that poor soul who just bought an over-priced house - take note.  C.  Universal basic income proposals will come in below what is already being paid out for most people, though not all.  For most it is basically a way to launder public tax monies into the coffers of corporate interests, who want their debt and rents and interest paid.  This instead of making housing or food or health care a right.

Global Warming:  Bill McKibben ( describes UnDemocratic Party (UDP) climate change denial:

“In fact, one of the lowest points in my years of fighting climate change came in late June, when I sat on the commission appointed to draft the Democratic Party platform. (I was a Sanders appointee, alongside Cornel West and other luminaries.) At 11 p.m. on a Friday night, in a mostly deserted hotel ballroom in St. Louis, I was given an hour to offer nine amendments to the platform to address climate change. More bike paths passed by unanimous consent, but all the semi-hard things that might begin to make a real difference—a fracking ban, a carbon tax, a prohibition against drilling or mining fossil fuels on public lands, a climate litmus test for new developments, an end to World Bank financing of fossil fuel plants—were defeated by 7–6 tallies, with the Clinton appointees voting as a bloc. They were quite concerned about climate change, they insisted, but a “phased-down” approach would be best. There was the faintest whiff of Munich about it.”
This goes a long way in explaining how electing ‘Democrats’ to save the environment is a false hope.  A radical solution is required if you actually understand what is happening.  The ‘Democrats’ do not.

The State:  The term ‘deep state’ is now in fashion, which is an improvement over the fairy tale that ‘your’ elected representatives ran everything.  The CIA still denies it is part of this state, but then their policy is deception.  The ‘deep state’ is what Marxists have called the ‘capitalist state’ for a long time.  The existence of this state gives the lie to anyone who thinks voting is the sole panacea to implement change.

The partially hidden state and the reds that spotted it.
However, most TV definitions of the deep state only include the repressive apparatus – the CIA/FBI/Military/NSA/The Offense Department, etc.  But it also includes the legal system, laws and courts, the various federal departments like State, InJustice, Bureau of Land MisManagement, Transport, (Big) Agriculture, Big Pharma (FDA), Wall Street Commerce, etc., the state versions of these departments, the Federal Reserve, the SEC, prisons, etc.  This is the true state that exists before, during and after various politicians take office.  While its personnel may have small changes, the overall policies remain the same – responding to who rules America.

The Election:  Trump was elected by about a ¼ of the voting population, which shows that ‘democracy’ in the U.S. is about on-level with a normal high school class president campaign.   Yet Trump and the Republican Party are preparing to lay waste to all of the capitalist ‘welfare’ state.   As such, no one can be a-political anymore.  No more ranting on Facebook and never showing up at a meeting, demonstration, occupation, independent electoral campaign, union meeting, confrontation or strike or joining a real resistance group.  The question is what kind of politics will emerge as a reaction - leftist or liberal pablum?

Because the mask of civility has dropped, Trump’s election has thrown the bi-partisan ruling elite and their system into a crisis.  The UnDemocratic Party (UDP) itself is paralyzed and disoriented.  We have not seen the UDP so weak in awhile and the UnRepublicans will soon follow.  Socialists, anarcho-syndicalists, labor, community organizations and the various mass movements are the best ones able to defend immigrants, black, indigenous & Latino peoples, workers, Muslims, the elderly, the sick and women. 

The UnDemocratic Party:  The election of Perez to UDP chair and the shutout of all Sanders electors should send a message to those who think the UDP will move to the left – even at this historical juncture.  As Pelosi said:  “We’re capitalists!”  Duh!  Have a donut. 

Hillary Clinton’s favorability rating is now below Trump, according to Counterpunch. 

Russia and Warmongering:  NATO and the U.S. conducted massive military ‘war game’ maneuvers in the Baltic states and eastern areas of Europe in 2016, the biggest since the Cold War.  These involved tanks, ships and 31,000 soldiers.  Almost no coverage of this in our corrupt mass media.  Obama, the ‘peace’ president, also ordered a very expensive ‘upgrade’ of U.S. nuclear capacity.  This same strategy is now being followed up by the national UDP and their MSNBC propaganda network, but their political version goes even further, slandering anyone here at home who does not want to wage war on Russia.  Even Obama, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out early this week, did not want to send troops directly into the Ukraine, as do the UDP and the majority of the UnRepublicans. 

Multiculturalism:  An older but relevant quote from Cornel West about the last administration, who was a sponsor of the Labor Party in the late 1990s: 
“Multiculturalism, when it means nothing more than having a president who is a ‘black mascot for Wall Street,’ betrays the disenfranchised and endows the ruling elites with a false progressivism, a false humanism and a false inclusiveness.”

Love:  One of the most bizarre and de-politicized slogans of the last few months has been ‘Love Trumps Hate.”  “Love” as a slogan has been used in the past by UnDemocrats, UnRepublicans, corporate executives, swarmy religious leaders, corporations, corporate advertisers, personal life coaches, bad singers and actors and just about anyone who wants to saying something by saying nothing.  Its roots are in Christian ‘love thy neighbor’ rhetoric.  Anyone who has lived with actual ‘neighbors’ knows just getting along and cooperating with most neighbors can be a challenge, let alone ‘loving’ them.  That can happen sometimes, but not in quite the way it is meant here. 

Yet the modern Democratic Party chooses this inane slogan as an expression of a vague ethical superiority, seemingly battling with the Republicans to see who is the real Christian!   Perhaps something like ‘defend Muslims and immigrants against racist policies’ is too wordy or too wonky? I’m sure you can think of a better slogan. But doing this might mean looking into the Democratic Party’s own immigration practices or actions in Muslim countries.  So ‘love’ reigns supreme, to coin Coltrane.   Keep it vague, baby! 

The Environment:   Fracking releases methane, which is 10 times more of a global warming chemical than carbon.  Fracking is not a 'bridge fuel' except to oblivion.
Trump:  After Trump, Mike Pence is waiting in the wings, theocratic Christian that he is.  The simple ‘dump Trump’ movement will usher in another reactionary more acceptable to the power structure. While you wait, here’s a song by Woody Guthrie about Trump’s daddy, showing the apple does not fall far from the tree:  

Old Man Trump 
Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Ryan Harvey

“I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project

Beach Haven ain't my home!
No, I just can't pay this rent!
My money's down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain't my home!

I'm calling out my welcome to you and your man both
Welcoming you here to Beach Haven
To love in any way you please and to have some kind of a decent place
To have your kids raised up in.
Beach Haven ain't my home!
No, I just can't pay this rent!
My money's down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain't my home!”

Prior commentary and book reviews on Love, Wall Street, the UnDemocratic Party, global warming below:  Use blog search box, upper left.
Red Frog
March 13, 2017

Thursday, March 9, 2017

“La comuna o nada!”

“Building the Commune – Radical Democracy in Venezuela,” by George Ciccariello-Maher, 2016

This illuminating little book goes a great way in explaining how socialism might advance in the present day.  It illustrates how a combination of a mass Socialist party, repeated electoral victories by that party and progressive legal/government law changes intersect with a mass movement on the ground, intent on creating communes, cooperatives and collectives across a country.  In a sense, how both a national and local approach to socialism can be successful if joined together.  In Venezuela it has created a socialistic political and economic ‘dual’ power challenging an entrenched capitalist state backed by a bourgeois counter-revolution.  
Commune members on the March in Venezuela
Ciccariello-Maher combines a Marxist analysis with in-depth reporting and interviews on people’s developments in Venezuela.  On the U.S. terrain we have only these things in embryo, which shows the incredible weakness of our society of de-politicization.  What the U.S. propaganda network shows about Venezuela is uniformly negative.  This book is highly optimistic about the possibilities for radical social change, even in the present dire circumstances in Venezuela.  As communistas say in the book, the revolution will not die even missing Chavez or Maduro.

The reason is the communes formed and forming across Venezuela, combining economic self-sufficiency and production with political mass democracy and socialist goals.  Mostly organized in geographic zones, they exist in barrios and rural areas, defended by armed 'collectives' comrades on motorcycles, Chavista-era laws and some state money.  They exist against the right-wing in the Chavista United Socialist Party (PSUV), as well as the capitalist political organizations.  The do not oppose the general to the specific, the local to the national, the large to the small, the top to the bottom, the central to the decentralized, the island to the sea, but dialectically attempt to combine the two.

This movement towards collective organization all started in 1989 in Venezuela during the ‘Caracazo,” when the right-wing pro-imperialist government’s army killed many during a mass uprising against the economic and social system.  The Caracazo was a stimulus to Chavez and the subsequent growth of Venezuelan socialism.  Collectives began to develop based on self-defense of certain geographic areas, which became no-go areas of the police.  After Chavez was elected, a law in 2006 gave governmental support to the development of communes.  This allowed them to take over unused land or buildings or the property of renegade capitalists, and which allowed them to receive some governmental financial aid.  This aid, which most left communistas know can weaken a commune, spurred them to become even more self-sufficient.  Since 2013, 1,546 communes, 45,000 communal councils and 1000s of ESPs were registered in Venezuela.  An ESP is a ‘social property unit.’  Squatters, the landless or land poor, the homeless, the mass of barrio dwellers, the proletariat and precariat, the street vendors and some peasants (Venezuela is 90% urban, but there is a leftist ‘back to the land’ movement developing) all were drawn into communes. 

The communes produce manufactured goods, rural foodstuffs or materials, host television, radio and sports programs, form retail outlets like restaurants and super-markets, rely on democratic elections to control their activities, form a base for the left in the Socialist Party and include links to armed ‘collectives’ that protect the communes.  These collectives helped corral the drug trade in some barrios and will not lay down their arms, in spite of demands to do so.  The communes attempt to bypass the import sector, the source of a culture of upper-class consumerism centered around expensive whiskey, electronics and cars.  The goal of many of their leaders is not simply to exist, but to grow and eventually lead to a socialist Venezuela. 

In a sense, this is the Venezuelan version of Paris Commune, the ‘soviets’ of Russia, the ‘workers councils’ of Germany or Italy, the ‘communes’ of China, the liberated areas of India, the ‘peoples’ assemblies’ attempting to launch in the U.S.  They are no historical accident, but the inevitable development of a new society attempting to be born out of the old.  As Ciccariello-Maher says: “Still capitalist, not yet socialist, Venezuela stands uncomfortably between two economic systems and two different states…”

As part of the book, Ciccariello-Maher does in-depth work undermining of the upper-class rebels in Venezuela – the only thing known in the U.S. about this country  The 2014 upsurge by the wealthy and middle-classes involved only 19 of 335 municipalities nationwide.  He explains the present ‘capital strike’ whereby food is diverted from the population by Venezuelan food corporations to be sold overseas or to create hunger.  The rebellions and discredited leaders are funded by the U.S. State Department through USAID, the NED and the IRI.  This was the policy of the ‘progressive’ Obama administration, which was trying to turn back the ‘pink tide’ in Latin America, specifically focusing on Brazil, Honduras and Argentina, in favor of U.S. corporate ownership overseas.  No different than former U.S. governments helping United Fruit, but with a more sophisticated ‘fox’ as the cover.

The main issue in Venezuela then is to move forward toward a communal society and state or be destroyed by local reaction and it's big brother, imperialism.

Other books on Latin America or involving it:  Anthology of Writings of Jose Carlos Mariatequi“, “Open Veins of Latin America,” “The Diary of Che Guevara,” “Drug War Capitalism,” “Secret History of the American Empire,” “Dream of the Celt,” “The Daminificados” and “The Structural Crisis of Capitalism.”

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
March 9, 2017

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Underground / Overground

“Clandestine Occupations – an Imaginary History,” by Diana Block, 2015

Block is a prisoner’s rights activist who helped found SF Women Against Rape and was a member of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, the ‘above-ground’ support organization for the Weather Underground.  She spent 13 years living underground in support of Puerto Rican and Black liberation groups and has now written a fiction book which draws heavily on those experiences.

Shakur escaped from prison in '79 and fled to Cuba in '84
It is rare that any left political organization is mentioned in present fiction – a union, a socialist or radical group, an illegal group.  Block weaves her experiences into a number of individual stories about 5 different San Francisco & Chicago women who ultimately interconnect, and all know each other in the end.   The book focuses on the 1970s-1980s, a time of radical ferment in the U.S.  The themes of the chapters are similar.  Lesbian women who are somewhat a-political meet more leftist women activists who draw them into the world of prison support work, defense of immigrants and harboring political fugitives.  The left politics of the book are somewhat nebulous, but ‘doing the right thing’ on an ethical personal level seems to have the most weight.

Luba (Yiddish Russian meaning ‘dear.’) is the central hard-core underground activist, probably a stand-in for the author.  She ties the stories together.  One women naively ends up helping an informer arrest a comrade.  Another withdraws from a prison support group for years because of its involvement in illegality, perhaps prison breakouts.  Others pledge to visit political prisoners in California, or help prisoners in hospitals.  One attempts fund-raising with rich liberals, a hard task.  The I-Ching and Tarot cards make frequent appearances oddly enough, helping the women decide what to do next.  

Using violence against the state by small groups in the interest of Puerto Rican or Black liberation is the political issue, but it is not really analyzed thoroughly.  In the end that tactic seems to be a failure, though the topic is somewhat gingerly handled.   

The book ends with the events of Occupy and Ferguson, and one woman’s daughter becoming radicalized herself.  The writing is somewhat moody and interior, which gives the book a lack of definition and perhaps will put some off.  It is a snapshot of a small part of the left of the period, and useful for people who have never been in any organization at all. 

Book review about the Weather Underground, issues of U.S. radical violence or prisons:  "The Way the Wind Blew" "Daydream Sunset," "American Pastoral"  "Are Prisons Obsolete?"  "Son of Saul," "Kolyma Tales," "Andersonville Prison," "Diary of Bergen-Belsen," "The Unseen," (use blog search box, upper left.)

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
February 28, 2017
Happy Mardi Gras!  Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Another Spain?


The middle-east has become a selective nightmare of drone strikes, obvious propaganda, civilian deaths, blow-back, Islamic fascism, Saudi money, a massive refugee crisis and imperial strategy.  What can a progressive do? 

The Syrian civil war, funded by the Saudi and Qatari Wahabbists against their religious opponents, the dictatorial Alewite government of Bashar Assad, has seen any progressive content in the rebellion subsumed by the Al Nusra front and various ‘good’ jihadis.  The ‘Free” Syrian Army is now under Sunni jihadi control, while Daesh controls the other half of the rebellion.  At the present, it looks like a later version of the imperial crusade against Saadam Hussein, but this time with the U.S. letting proxies do the fighting and the religious affiliations switched.

PKK Flag
Rolling Stone has just published an article that will peak the interest of anyone interested in actual fights for socialism in the middle-east.  The article is titled “The Dudes vs. ISIS.”  In spite of the stupid title, it is straight reporting.  In Kurdish-controlled sections of northern Syria, the Kurds are carving out an egalitarian society led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).  The YPG is mostly Kurdish, but also contains Christian Assyrians, some Arabs and a group of western leftists. It is led by a former Marxist-Leninist, Abdullah ┼Écalan, who has now become a supporter of the writings of the anarchist Murray Bookchin.  THIS is unique.      

The Kurdish people have been denied national self-determination and are now trying to achieve it in the form of “Rojava,” in a multi-sided fight with Daesh and sometimes with the Turkish military, with little help from the purely nationalist Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq.  Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq and Syria and have been denied national independence since the colonialists drew the boundaries of the middle-east.  According to the article, they have liberated an area the size of Massachusetts of 4 million people, and are instituting a secular, social-democratic government run by peoples assemblies, which protects the rights of women, advocates ecological sustainability and limits capital.  This is unlike almost anything else in the middle-east – which is for the most part a bastion of theocracy, the bazaar, military dictatorships and failing states.
Rojava in northern Syria
Young anarchists, communists and independent leftists from European countries like Italy, Britain and Spain and also from the U.S. have been traveling there, some to the socialist-controlled city of Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, and then on into Rojava to take up arms. Since Spain and perhaps some deserters in Vietnam or volunteers with the Sandinistas, this is one of the rare instances of American leftists who have no love for bourgeois pacifism to be able to directly fight for what they think is a socialistic society.  The internationals in Rojava formed a sniper group, then their own company, but are still far below the numbers of internationals that went to Spain to fight the fascist Franco.  Some 60,000 went to fight in that war.  The article in Rolling Stone personally profiles some of the young men, mostly disaffected with their lives under U.S. capitalism.  Some have been killed, some have returned a number of times, some are still there. But the number of internationals in Rojava may grow. 

Daesh is afraid of women fighters and both the YPJ and now the Yazidi religious minority have women under arms.  According to the article, presently the YPG is moving on Raqqa on the Euphrates in northern Syria, along with other forces.  Raqqa is the ostensible capital of Daesh’s brutal ‘caliphate.’ 

Three cautionary points here.  One, the U.S. government can prosecute anyone who goes to fight for groups the U.S. might deem ‘terrorist.” The PKK is still declared a ‘terrorist’ organization because of U.S. anti-communism and Turkish pressure.  The Feds have used this law to jail Somali teens who traveled to link up with the Islamic fundamentalist El Shaabab in Somalia.   They could use it to prosecute those who go to fight for Rojava if they change policy.  Two, the U.S. government has military embedded with Kurdish forces besieging Raqqa.  However, those advisors can be withdrawn at a moments notice, as leftist Kurds are only being backed because they are actually effective against the anti-working class elements in Daesh. Once the reactionary Turkish government and the U.S. decide the Kurds are dispensable - boom!  Three, Raqqa, while having some Kurdish civilians living there, might be a trap to exhaust the YPJ/YPG and the PKK in a bloodbath, while other factions pick up the pieces. 

Nevertheless, the article is an eye-opener and shakes the view that the middle-east is a hopeless ‘mess’ of bad possibilities. This fragile opening in the middle east is based on the collapse of the colonialist 'state' system imposed by the West.  It also reflects the weakness and decline of the U.S. military and government and their regional allies, which has failed time after time to impose their will on the middle-east and in places like Afghanistan. Support Kurdish independence and socialism.  Support Rojava!

P.S. - Counterpunch reports that some 'Free" Syrian Army militias backed by Turkey have been attacking Rojava and Kurdish positions. More evidence that the FSA is not as advertised.

Red Frog
February 23, 2017

Friday, February 17, 2017


"Ways of Seeing,” by David Berger, 1972

This classic on art was written by Berger, a Marxist who died in 2016.  It is inspired by Walter Benjamin and a bit by Levi-Strauss.  The book came out of a video series on BBC.  It combines text with black and white pictures of older paintings between the Renaissance and up to Impressionism, with some chapters made up of only pictures.  As Berger points out, the eye came before the word.
A hunting we shall go ... what wonderful brush strokes!
As you might expect when a Marxist looks at art, the impression is far different than the standard formalist criticism of a bourgeois art critic.  Berger’s essay hits on things you might have thought during your last gallery visit or non-visit, but ones which you never clearly formulated as legitimate ideas. 

For instance, Berger looks at a picture by Frans Hals, an aged, penniless and almost homeless painter, doing portraits of the ruling burghers of Haarlem, Holland.  The rich people portrayed are somewhat ugly, drunk or creepy.  However, the bourgeois art critic only discusses the ‘play of light and shadow,’ not the possible class hostility the painter might have felt. Berger looks at the plethora of paintings of things – still lifes or land holdings for instance – which actually parade the ownership of these things.  In the past, the elite had walls covered with oil paintings, by this method attempting to absorb the things in the images into their literal woodwork.  

Berger discusses the invention of the camera and art reproductions, and how they change and subvert the nature of oil-painted originals.  Timelessness disappeared because of them.  Berger looks at advertising (which he somehow calls ‘publicity’) and illustrates how it tries to borrow from classic art to give itself some inherent quality, which it absolutely lacks.  Berger has a chart which shows that the majority of people think present art museums most closely resemble churches, and second, libraries - which should explain why they are sometimes depopulated.  Berger has another that shows the more education you have, except in Holland, the more you visit art museums - showing the class nature of art museums.  He slyly describes how the words in the explanation next to a painting change the painting.  Berger feels that the lowly landscape painters actually led the way in technical improvements in oil painting. 

Look What We Have to Eat!
Pornography or the ‘pin-up’  - the woman as beautiful object - definitely originated from oil painting. Berger describes two kinds of oil paintings of nakedness.  The first being the most common:  the nude – the object woman, where male desire becomes fantasy.  The second is more rare, the naked - the real woman, where the woman remains herself.  Countless nudes dot the museums of Europe and the U.S., with virtually no comment.

Here are some of the more leftist quotes from Berger:
  • Art critics I:  “A privileged minority is retrospectively inventing a history to justify the role of the ruling classes.” 
  • Museums I:  “The work of art is enveloped in an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity.” 
  • The art market:  “The market price is said to be a reflection of its spiritual value.”
  • Sophisticated culture experts and painting catalogues: “They are declared art when their line of descent can be certified.”
  • The promotion of old art:  “…makes art seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.”
  • Art critics II:  “Clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline.” 
  • Old art:  “The art of the past no longer exists as it once did, its authority is lost.”  This thought might occur to you upon seeing your 200th Italian Madonna and child.
  • Oil painting I:  “Oil painting did to appearances what capitalism did to social relations…  It reduced everything to the equality of objects.” 
  • Museums II:  “Visitors to art museums are often overwhelmed by the number of works on display…such a reaction is altogether reasonable.”  Berger points out that everything is jumbled together on purpose.
  • Portraits:  “…equality must be made inconceivable.”  The formality of a portrait creates a distance based on class. 
  • Gold leaf in paint or on frames:  Exactly.
  • Classic paintings:  “…a certain moral value was ascribed to the study of the classics.” 
  • “Genre” pictures:  Berger points out that the 'low-lifes' in most of these hack pictures always look happy.
  • Marxists:  “We are accused of being obsessed by property.  The truth is the other way around.  It is the society and culture in question which is so obsessed.” 
  • Advertising I:  It functioned during the cold war as the ‘visible sign of the ‘Free’ World.” 
  • Oil painting II:  “Oil painting, before it was anything else, was a celebration of private property.” 
  • Advertising II:  “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion.” 
  • Advertising III:  “The working self envies the consuming self.”
  • Advertising IV:  A paraphrase:  The hope to acquire becomes the lone satisfaction under the culture of capitalism.  
If you realize the present art world is pricey, constipated and barely living, you might like this book.

Other books or commentaries on art reviewed below:  9.5 Thesis on Art,” “All Art is Propaganda,” “Art is Dead,” “Desert of Forbidden Art,” “Women in Soviet Art.”

Red Frog
February 17, 2017

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Short Reviews of Thin Books

“The Worker Elite: Notes on the Labor Aristocracy,” by bromma; “Night Shift,” by Ron Kolm


“Worker Elite” is a book probably written by an anarcho-syndicalist.  ‘bromma,’ a former Canadian/Quebecois unionist, attempts to draw a class line between more privileged workers and less privileged workers, indicating that the former become traitors to ‘revolution.’  While giving valuable data and drawing accurate material lines even within poor countries and internal communities, he ultimately fails in his thesis.  That is because revolution is not the only working class goal.  To even get to that point, a series of transitional demands would have to be achieved.

Understanding that wealth and income play a role in consciousness and behavior is not a secret to any materialist.  No news here.  It is one of the great problems that socialists have in advanced and complex capitalist countries, in any class society, an issue that capital creates due to its strategy not to immiserate everyone.  

Here bromma uses that understanding to make a hash of class categories.  He blurs the lines or disappears the contradictions between union bureaucrats and union members; workers in the global “south” and workers in the global ‘north; the actual middle class and the actual working class; white-collar workers and blue-collar workers.  Essentially, drawing a 'class line' within the working class seems to be somewhat sectarian!  I couldn’t even find a reference to any white worker in north America who wasn’t privileged economically.  There is so much blurring, you ultimately have to guess who he’s talking about in much of the book.

'Privileged' workers on the Midnight Shift
His main fire is aimed at union workers in the global north and privileged workers in the global south.  bromma calls them ‘middle class’ – thereby identifying their own possible self-consciousness with their actual class reality.  He doesn’t like the term ‘labor aristocracy’ which has been used in the past, and substitutes the term ‘worker elite,’ widening it to include all unionists, not just highly skilled workers.   His main material tool is an economic category called ‘purchasing power parity’ (PPP).  Bromma has useful though somewhat dated statistics comparing workers world-wide.  He established a PPP of around $10,000-$15,000 as the threshold of his middle-class category.  Autoworkers worldwide are especially in his sights, due to their higher incomes such as in Mexico or South Korea.

As capital is driving more workers into a less privileged position world-wide, the great task will be to unite the struggles of all workers across economic strata. Given the complexity of class structures in most countries, this is not an easy task.  Given union membership in the U.S. is at a serious low, that should bring joy to bromma’s heart.  But change is certainly made harder by an analysis that turns possible allies into the ‘enemy.’ Revolutions do not come until the bulk of the working class agrees, and that cannot be changed by aiming your main fire at the wrong people. 


“Night Shift’ is a book of straight-forward short stories, only one of which concerns actually working a night shift in a plastics factory.  That is disappointing, as night-shift workers face peculiar and nasty problems.  Most of them are vignettes about working crappy jobs in bookstores, non-profits or the plastics factory, or writing a crappy book.  Kolm’s experiences led to problems with marriages and relationships.  I worked in a plastics factory for 2 days and left due to the toxic environment.  I still ride by small plastic’s factories that now employ mostly Latino labor and on a warm summer morning the factory doors are open and you can smell the fumes.  Kolm, after his night shift, literally stunk so bad his wife told him to sleep on the couch. It was a dangerous and toxic environment. Why he didn’t leave is beyond me.  Kolm mentions drugs a lot, so that might have been part of it. 

Kolm is one of a group of working-class writers that cover the de-politicized and seamy side of working-class life in the U.S., people like Bukowski and Palahniuk.  As a writer, his first foray into literature along the lines of a middle-class academic provides a certain amount of humor.  His attempt to combine Joyce, Ben Johnson, Swift, Beckett and Celine caused a wordy wreck.  It became ‘the worst book he ever read.’ These stories are the kind of things you might hear at a ‘reading’ session in the back of a bar.  I have a severe allergy to short stories but if you like them, this might work for you.

Other fiction/non-fiction about factory life mentioned below:  Factory Days,”Night Shift” (by David Macaray this time); “Shop Class as Soulcraft.”

And I bought them at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
February 11, 2017

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Non-Fictional Fiction

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo, 2012

This book reads like a luminous and intense fiction story written by someone who has had much contact with the working underclass of Mumbai.  What astonishes is that at the end of the book, the author tells you that it is based on 4 years of interviews with slum dwellers in an actual squatter neighborhood called Annawadi near the Mumbai airport in India, and a review of 3 thousand public records that related to these squatters.  All the events and people are real, including the use of their real names.  The period is from 2007-2010, during which even this little community is impacted by Wall Street’s 2008 mortgage crash.

Recyclers from Annawadi
So this is some kind of new form of ‘fiction’ – not historical so much as sociological / political non-fiction fiction!  Because of course Boo cannot create all thoughts and dialog from research. 

The fluffy title “Beautiful Forevers” comes from an advertising slogan about floor tile posted on the tall wall to the airport, behind which Annawadi lies.  A bit of irony, as there are no beautiful forevers there.

The book tells the tale of a few Muslim families living in a majority Hindu slum, peopled by rural migrants from various parts of northern India.  A septic pond sits near the slum.  Water is shared by everyone from a single pipe.  Toilets are sorts of outhouses.  The living quarters are made of loose bricks, plywood, bamboo, tarpaulins, corrugated metal and whatever people can find to cover themselves.  After the 2008 economic crash and a subsequent Islamic terror attack on downtown Mumbai, fewer tourists came through the airport and so times got harder.

One of the main occupations is collecting valuable garbage from the near-by airport – cups, cans, metal, plastic – anything that can be resold.  Some get temp jobs as waiters or baggage boys.  Others run scams based on fake schools or non-existent ‘anti-poverty’ or women’s organizations to get international aid – money which is then divied-up among the powerful.  Bribery demands from everyone in authority – police, coroners, investigators, government clerks, lawyers, politicians – are constant.  Many voters are disenfranchised and never get to vote.  The conservative Shiv Sena and the neo-liberal Congress Party take turns basically buying votes from the slum.  Some boys become thieves.  The girls fear being sent back through arranged marriages to brutal men in backward villages, as they actually have more freedom in the slum.  Suicide by drinking rat poison or anonymous murder of scavenger boys occurs on a regular basis.  Plans to bulldoze the slum and build malls or other upscale buildings hover over Annawadi the whole time. 

The key plot here is a fight between two families in which a women lights herself on fire, and her death is blamed on a Muslim family.  Three members of that family are arrested and thrown in jail, and into the hands of the absurd and crumbling Indian ‘justice’ system where they await their fate.

The ‘modern’ people - the ‘over-city’, the foreign airport tourists, the Mumbai wealthy - all weigh on the denizens of Annawadi.  Even these slum people now think in the new setting of neo-liberalism they may escape their conditions by working hard, getting a bit of education, by copying or making friends with the better-off.  None of it happens.

Boo captures their individual humanity in the midst of this trapped situation.  But instead of uniting politically as a class or group, she shows how they fight among themselves, jealous of any financial success, attempting some individual financial trick that will catapult them out of the slum.  In the process they are unable to conceive of any bigger force than their own individual families. As the stories show, oppression oppresses – something those who romanticize poverty forget on a regular basis.  It does not always make people stronger, but instead can destroy them bit by bit. 

Other books related to India reviewed below:  Capitalism:  A Ghost Story,” “Annihilation of Caste,” “Field Notes on Democracy,” “The God Market,” “Garbageland,” “Southern Insurgency,” “Walking With The Comrades,” Tropic of Chaos,” “Story of My Assassins,” and “Last Man in the Tower.”    

Red Frog
February 5, 2017