Saturday, April 18, 2015

Under the Tuscan Rain

"The Dark Heart of Italy,” by Tobias Jones, 2007 to 2013

Behind the food, the views, the clothes and ‘la dolce vita’ of the Italian Brand is another reality.  While the Berlosconi political era is ostensibly passed in Italy, nothing has really changed as Jones’ 2013 book afterward indicates. Jones dug into Italy’s corruption and class rule after a 4-year stint living and teaching there.  He discussed the real nature of Italy with Italians, not tourists, as he learned Italian and was able to communicate well.  While escapism might be a main reason many travel, it is not all, nor should be.  Here is the dark side behind the vino rosso and the Tuscan erotica.  Italy to me is like some bright cross between Mexico and the American South – a second-world country that wants you to think it’s not. 

Contradictions of Italy - Sunbather on a WWII Pillbox - CGG
Writing from “Red” Parma in the north, Jones first encounters Italy as a British travel writer interested in fresco tints and wine vintages.  The longer he stays there, the more he starts seeing something else under the covers.  His original middle-of the road impulse stays with him, in spite of the facts that he accumulates.  While constantly talking about Italy being divided almost exactly in two by diametrically opposed social views, and practically siding with the Italian Left, he can’t seem to actually do it.  He continues to make jabs at a Left that has almost never been in power, and hence has not really been able to change Italy.  And Italy desperately needs change.  The Communist Party, and then the 'Democratic Party of the Left’ or the more left 'Refondazione' were never able to win a national bourgeois election, for all the same reasons we are familiar with.  Sometimes Jones tries to convince himself that ordinary Italian psychology is why ‘everyone’ agrees with a culture of power and corruption. Berlusconi openly said bribery was normal and should be acceptable.  Do all Italians agree?  Of course not.  Many despair.  

Working-class Italians have a difficult time with the intolerable bureaucracy of government paperwork; with laws that are not followed by the elites; with bribes and high prices, with banks that will not make loans to ordinary people, with the archaic nature of the culture.  Rising above them since World War II is the constant rule of industrialists, the Catholic Vatican, neo-Fascists and the Mafia, all working together.  All were refracted in the ‘new’ figure of Berlusconi in the early 1990s.  Berlusconi is the billionaire owner of a swath of Italian corporations, including most private television in Italy, and a smiling, tanned bon vivant.  He was the novo-inheritor of the tradition of “Christian Democracy” rejected in 1991, yet giving it an ‘outsider’ twist like an Italian Tea-Party.  He was the perfect neo-conservative, enacting Thatcher/Reagan policies while actually enriching his corporations and his cronies.  Even Enrico Craxi, the indicted leader of the neo-liberal Socialist Party, endorsed him at one point - which gives you an idea of the degeneration of the 2nd International in Italy.  Berlusconi’s new party dominated Italian politics for about 20 years, from 1992 to 2012 in alliance with the xenophobic “Northern League.”  

Jones explores Italy through several highly-political trials involving alleged bombings and killings during the radical 1960s to 1980s, starting with the fascist bombing in Milan at Piazza Fontana in 1969 that killed many civilians.  This period is called the ‘anni di piombo.’ ('years of lead.')  This period of suppressed civil war reflected the real civil war in 1943-1945 between Italian partisans and Mussolini's fascists.  These trials revealed the deep divide in Italian politics between the proletarian or ‘honest’ voters and the deeply corrupt and corporate ones – the latter being allied with the violent Italian state. These sections bring back all the issues of Italian politics that American radicals have probably forgotten.

Jones discusses the corruption of Italian soccer, which has rigged games, rich team owners who collaborate and players who are drugged up.  He has a hilarious examination of dreadful Italian television, which puts every Italian weakness on display – much as American television does for us.  Another is a chapter on corrupt building construction practices, which have decimated some environments and resulted in over-production of housing units all over the peninsula.  Jones makes a ‘pilgrimage’ to a monastery in southern Italy, and examines the touristic world of Catholic miracles and saints through “Father Pio,” a modern who supposedly bled from stigmata.  To be a Catholic saint you have to perform miracles, which shows how the Catholic faith is still deeply embedded in pre-Enlightenment mysticism.  Jones mentions that Italy is ‘the land that women’s liberation forgot.’  Powerful men can diddle their young female employees and are admired in Italy.  In the U.S. that is called workplace harassment.  It can get you fired, as textile magnate Dov Charney  from “American Apparel” found out.  Not so in Italy.   

Factoids from Jones:  Italy surpassed the U.S. in the late 1990s on car ownership, having the most cars per capita of any country in the world.  Can you say Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bugatti?  Toy cars are frequently sold in stores to adults.  There is a Fiat everywhere.  Italy has a quarter of all the registered television stations in the world, covering every topic imaginable, including multiple channels of women parading around in bathing suits.  Italy has a huge amount of empty apartments and homes due to legal and illegal overbuilding.  Italy has the highest voter attendance of any bourgeois democracy – around 95%.  In 1999, Italy topped the list of human rights violators in Europe.  At one point, it was rated by independent organizations as the most corrupt country in Europe.  Italy also has more laws than any other European country.

Of note, Jones points out that behind the ‘relaxed attitudes’ of Italians masks a deep subservience to power.  Many Italians rightly fear and distrust the Italian rich and their capitalist government, and hence some act more like serfs than citizens.  Long acculturation to the rule of the masters and businessmen has imprinted itself on many, especially those in small towns.   This is somewhat similar to the attitudes in the American south.  He also has a long section on the degeneration of Italian culture.  Italy still constantly celebrates its high point 500 years ago during the Renaissance.  A later footnote - an explosion of great Italian film culture in the 1960s and 1970s around directors like Antoniono, Bertolucci, De Sica, Fellini, Pasolini and Rossellini - is no more.  A new 2014 Italian film, “The Great Beauty,” attempted to mirror these classics, but merely showed that the Italian ‘art crowd’ intelligentsia has failed to become anything more than a beautiful irrelevancy.   Tourists are presented with the Renaissance as if modernity has never occurred.  Take pictures! Yet even many Italians are tired of worshipful viewing of Madonna’s, frescos of saints and ancient sculpture.  Not so American art teachers and students however.  

Here are some choice quotes from Jones:  

“Credibility in Italian is often based on pomposity.” 
“There is a provincialism in Italy that is unthinkable elsewhere.”
“Italy isn’t a religious country’ It’s a clerical one.” 
“As the British go to the pub (to socialize) Italians go to the post-office.”
Italy specializes in “I don’t care-ism.” 
“The country is based upon aesthetics much more than ethics.” 
“Only dress and dining codes are rigorously obeyed.”
“No one is entirely guilty, no one ever simply innocent.”

A thoroughly enjoyable book.  Should you find yourself in Italy, worth reading on a sunny piazza while downing a macchiato or a Campari soda.  However, please don’t notice the omnipresent offices of the ‘Carabiniera’ police in every Italian city.

And I bought it in the crowded tourist hill-town of Siena, Toscana, Italia.
Red Frog
April 18, 2015

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Carnival in the Streets

Super-Size Wages!  $15 an Hour Campaign Targets McDonalds

As part of a nation-wide protest in the U.S. on April 15, a large and boisterous crowd marched from the plaza in front of Northrup Auditorium at the U of Minnesota to rally in front of the Dinkytown McDonalds.  Workers called for, not super-sizing their sugary drinks or toxic fries, but their wages.  Burly McDonald’s managers in blue stood at the entrance alleging McDonald’s was still ‘open.’ Evidently, like the crowd, they also 'were not lovin' it.'  

Sponsored by a broad range of organizations – $15 Now Campaign; Neighborhood’s Organizing for Change (NOC); Centro de Trabajores Unidos in Lucha (CTUL); $15 Now Airport campaign, Teamsters Local 320 at the U; SEIU, AFSCME Local 3800 at the U; the union organizing committee for faculty at the U; and some other union locals, it was a working-class crowd that also attracted ‘soon to be’ workers – students, many of whom have to work to pay the U’s high tuition. 

Speeches were made in front of Morrill Hall, the center of the U’s administration. (Some call it ‘Im-Morrill Hall’ at this point.)  A Latino woman who is on strike against her fast-food restaurant spoke from CTUL.  Cherene Horzuk, the head of Local 3800 AFSCME, gave a rousing speech about the U secretaries and administrative workers’ successful struggle to get $15 an hour.  They have been in conflict with the bourgeois 1% that has been running the Board of Regents since the Vietnam War days.  The Regents run a very expensive, top-heavy administration that even the NY Times noted, instead of paying their staff that actually do the work.  A representative of the committee attempting to unionize faculty and TA’s spoke, as well as a Latino student who worked at fast-food restaurants for 3 years in order to become a PHD student. 

The march was led by the CTUL truck decked out in flags.  Enthusiastic young people from NOC and SEIU led chants against McDonalds, the bosses in general, for $15 an hour and for worker unity, (“Oberos, unidos, jamas seran vencidos” made its appearance.).  At one special moment as the crowd of about 400 crossed University Avenue into Dinkytown, dance music broke out and NOC led the dance moves in the street.  This might remind anyone of a quote from Emma Goldman. 

The march wound through Dinkytown and by some unaware students who perhaps had beer, shopping or their career on their minds, not the minimum wage.  The truck stopped in front of McDonalds’ and the marshals (from SEIU?) kept everyone in the street on 4th, away from McDonalds.  One observer from the IWW called it a bit of street theater, no more.  Perhaps the next time, surprise visits could be made to a fast-food restaurants for sit-ins.  As the old chant goes, “Shut it down, shut it tight, the bosses can’t profit when the workers unite.”  (It was reported to me later that people went inside the McDonalds, or that it was locked for the period of the rally.  Can anyone verify this?)

The capitalists at McDonald’s have not followed the slightly more aware corporate managers at Wal-Mart and Target by raising wages even a bit across the board.  However Wal-Mart and Target’s wages are still nowhere near $15.  Studies have shown that even $15 is inadequate for food and housing in Minneapolis, with the real bottom being around $17.50 or $18.00 an hour.  The corporate mayor of Minneapolis, liberal Democrat Betsy Hodges, is also against $15, playing her role as a representative of Target. 

Yet their partial ‘cave’ shows that this campaign is a serious social threat in the U.S. and can mobilize many different elements of the working class.  It is possible that the capitalists can accede to this demand, but it will take a mass struggle nationally. It is also possible that they cannot. The demand is spreading internationally now, as poverty wages are an international phenomenon.    Leftist organizers see it, not just a way to get a needed raise for all, but as part of a transitional approach for other working class demands.

A view of this morning's Star Tribune on-line shows no coverage of this march.

(Of special note, a large fire spewed black smoke yesterday on the north side, sending the offices of NOC up in flames along with a whole block of businesses.  The 'word on the street' is that this might be arson, as a developer is trying to gentrify this area and had plans for this block.  Burning up the offices of a progressive black-led organization would be an added plus for area capitalists.  Stay tuned to see if a real arson investigation occurs.)

Red Frog
April 16, 2015

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Nature – Not Just for Scenic Value or Recreation Anymore

"The Collapse of Western Civilization – A View From the Future,” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, 2015.

Another cheery take on climate change.  Two scientists got together and tried to explain what is happening, and what is going to happen if neo-liberal economic polices continue to control decision-making in the ‘west’ regarding the environmental crisis.  Unusually, they did so via ‘science fiction’ - from the view of an historian in the far future, looking back on the primitive period when humanity knew what was going on and yet didn’t act.  As a result, ‘Western’ civilization – and capitalism – collapses in 2093.  
Dead in the Future
This science fiction view from 2393 is both humorous and downright sad.  The story's view is a ‘holistic’ scientific approach that includes both society and political economics – otherwise no one can really understand how to deal with global warming or what is causing it. 

The historian calmly describes the 6th Extinction, the decimation of Africa, South Asia, Australia and many parts of Latin America from heat or flooding; famine, mass human displacement and death; the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets; the monumental failure of natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’; a second Black Death in Europe due to the spread of insect-born diseases; the final release of methane from the arctic tundra; ocean acidification and temperature elevation; sea level rises of 9 meters; temperature rises of 11 degrees Celsius.  This event is christened “The Great Collapse” by history.  The historian lists the events in a distant way, much as we would look dispassionately on the wars of the Middle Ages or some other period of human folly, and wonder at the crudity of humanity.

The key in this short book is not some environmental crisis that came out of nowhere, as proffered by some apocalyptic writers.  The authors clearly identify runaway world capitalism – market fundamentalism - as the culprit.  Environmental costs are external to present market mechanisms, hence the future cannot be understood via the market.  The market is blind.  This is similar to what Naomi Klein does in her book, “This Changes Everything.” They call it the market failure of the ‘carbon-combustion complex,’ borrowing from Eisenhower.  The authors call the ‘invisible hand’ of traditional capitalist theory a ‘form of magical thinking.’  They are not Marxists of course, but have been forced in this direction by events.

The book is peppered with maps of areas that are underwater – Amsterdam, Antwerp, Dahka, New York, Miami and Tampa.  They point out that Carl Sagan was the first to identify the ‘greenhouse effect’ way back in 1959.  They describe a fanciful “Sea Level Denial Bill” passed in 2012 in North Carolina, US. (which actually did pass, but not under that name.)  They slyly mention that nature is not just for recreational or scenic purposes, as humans are inextricably bound up with nature.  It is odd that this even has to be explained but most people connect with nature only in a romantic or utilitiarian sense.  Ultimately global warming slows because of the illicit development by a Japanese scientist of a black lichen fungus that coats the world.  The lichen absorbs CO2 at a large rate, thus stabilizing the temperature at ‘only’ 11 degrees Celsius above the threshold for irreversible climate change. 

As scientists the authors discuss the pre-cautionary principle, the failure of logical positivism as a philosophy, the isolation in silos of typical scientists, the inability of scientists to understand or intervene in the political side of society; Fisherian statistics, Type 1 and Type 2 errors and so on.

The authors make typical liberal – and hence untrue - statements attacking ‘formerly existing socialism,’ which is predictable.  Oddly enough, they also make an appeal to conservatives by quoting Freidrich von Hayek to the effect that even Hayek understood there was a role for the state in mitigating pollution, deforestation or bad methods of farming.  As if logical discussions of Hayek were going to change minds! Their biggest point for conservatives (and liberals) is to argue that failure to act on global warming will lead to the victory of ‘neo-communism,’ as expressed by a future ‘2nd People’s Republic of China’ and by extension, similar governments across the world who finally dispense with unplanned market societies based on mass consumerism.  They note that China was the only society that was able to plan and handle ‘The Great Collapse” due to its centralized government and planning system. 

Like good history, science fiction is also really about the present, and not merely escapism.  This book is a quick read and will sober up anyone who is unable to think ahead. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 10, 2015
Commune de Cortona, Toscana, Italia

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Defencism or Surrender?

"Is the East Still Red? – Socialism and the Market in China,” by Gary Blank, 2015

The most complex issue in Marxism today is the class character of China.  The present conventional view among most strands of Marxists  – whether originating from Maoist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Social-Democrat (‘democratic socialist’) or some other left tradition, is that it is a capitalism of some kind.  Blank challenges this assertion – not from the viewpoint of a pro-Beijing CCP supporter, but as an independent Marxist who studies this question exclusively.  In the process he clarifies both the factual and the ideological issues regarding China, no matter what your position.  
Chinese Workers on Strike in Shang-Hai

Blank gives a comprehensive yet succinct overview, focusing on two books, “China and Socialism:  Market Reforms and Class Struggle” by Burkett/Hart-Landsberg (“BHL”), and “Adam Smith in China” by Giovanni Arrighi.  In doing so he references many contemporary writers and comes to his own conclusions.  Of note is his ability to consider Leon Trotsky’s views, as Trotsky was the first and most prominent theoretician to witness and define a ‘degenerated’ or ‘deformed workers’ state.’ 

Blank sees good things in both books, but contends that each is wrong about China and political economy - in their either excessively-pessimistic or overly-optimistic conclusions and methods.  BHL are wrong because they ignore the state, yet right because they identify the continuing dispossession of the working class and peasantry.  Arrighi is wrong because he’s essentially given up on the prospect of socialism, yet he also identifies areas where the CCP is still influential in the right way.  Blank of course investigates the books more fully than a review can.

Blank’s view is that the last 20 years in China exhibit “many of the central hallmarks of a transition to capitalism.”  About market socialism, he contends that a “non-capitalist market society is truly illusory, “  Yet the transition to capitalism is not complete in China and is ‘subject to serious contention by workers, peasants and sections of the ruling stratum (CCP officials and enterprise managers) that still reproduce themselves in non-capitalist ways.”  Unlike most observers who only look at economic facts, Blank also considers the ‘state’ and working class struggle as key issues – which are nearly always ignored by leftists who think China is already ‘state capitalist’ or capitalist.  Ultimately what defines modern capitalism is its capture of the state apparatus.   It is not merely a mode of economic production.   He notes that it was the failure of the Chinese merchant class to seize the feudal state that stymied the development of modern capitalism in China long ago.  This process of state capture occurred in England and Europe first, which made European capitalism possible.  The state, as any Marxist knows, is not a neutral body - it is allied to one class or another, and no class can dominate society without one.

Blank discusses the historical positions of various tendencies in regard to the state.  He gives short shrift to the contention that China is ‘state capitalist’ either from the ultra-left position of Alex Callinicos or the ‘progressive’ position of Samir Amin.  State capitalism in whatever form would have to be a new stage of capital inserting itself between capitalism and workers’ rule – a ‘stage’ unanticipated by any Marxist until Max Schachtman.  Blank himself follows a definition of “bureaucratic collectivism,” which he considers a refinement over Trotsky’s position about ‘degenerated’ and ‘deformed’ workers’ states.  Both are transitional societies that never reached socialism, but differ in the definition of the bureaucracy.  He contends that, unlike Trotsky’s ‘orthodox Marxist” position that the bureaucracy is a parasitic ‘caste’- the ‘bureaucratic collectivist’ view sees it as a new social class.  As I might ask about state capitalism, which ‘new’ class might that be?  Essentially this new class would introduce a new historical phase that all capitalist societies ‘might’ have to go through.   This is reminiscent of the stagism of the Second International before WWI, or the endless ‘popular front’ of reformist socialism. 

Blank goes through the various ‘reforms’ in China from the 1978 plenum in which market socialism was initiated by Deng Xiaoping; the 1992 turn to the IMF and export production after Deng’s ‘southern tour’; 1997 and a turn towards mass privatization; a turn in 2008 in which land use rights were allowed for sale.  His central contention is that the Chinese Army is still controlled by the CCP; the major banking sector is still controlled by the CCP; the major energy, mineral and transport areas are still controlled by the CCP; that agriculture has not been taken fully out of the hands of the peasants or the local government units; that the yuan is not convertible; that there are capital controls in place in the Chinese economy; that state banks still loan money to ‘money-losing’ concerns to avoid unemployment (called ‘malign distribution’). And most importantly, this reflects that peasant / working class / CCP bureaucrat resistance has time and time again delayed or stopped the full transition to a market society – even after 37 years of trying.  There is still a left wing in the CCP and a ‘New Left’ outside it that opposes market efforts.  The ideas of Marxism and socialism still have some weight in Chinese society among the lower classes and are still a material force. 

The program to make ‘market socialism’ work is like trying to square a circle.  It cannot be done and puts the bureaucracy in a bind.  Either a full market will depose them from power, as many bureaucrats have found themselves not benefitting by privatization - or a full top-down command economy will stifle productivity, leading to stagnation.  This problem of productivity was/is an almost fatal problem in every single workers’ state, as the economy was not really in the hands of the working class through forms of workers’ democracy.  This crushed productivity and initiative.  Blank thinks that no real working class democracy has ever existed in China even under Mao; nor a high enough level of productivity and technology to ease labor – both of which were prescribed by Marx in order to reach actual socialism - which is the lower level of a classless society that would incidentally not need a state. 

Blank contends  that the new neo-liberal billionaire ‘princelings’ in the Party are concentrated in finance and export industries and do not yet dominate the Party. The export sector crashed in 2008 due to the capitalist crisis in the West.  It was only the most extraordinary plan by the CCP after that crash that stimulated Chinese production to an almost unheard of degree,  It basically provided a stabilizer for the whole world economy – much as the USSR and eastern Europe used to do when they still existed as non-capitalist states.  A neo-liberal capitalist economy would have not done this – perhaps even the reverse. The Chinese government actions in regard to climate change also indicate that the 'market' is not dominating this issue either.

Blank makes fun of the contention that a mass social revolution can be overturned by a single plenum meeting in the 1970s, as contended by orthodox Maoists like William Hinton and their academic fellow travelers in Monthly Review.  Philosophically, this orthodox Maoist idea is rank idealism.  He points out that Burkett-Hart cannot really date their ‘counter-revolution’ - nor can many others.  After all, the contention that capitalism can slip into power is a sort of ‘reformism in reverse.’  A ‘state’ suddenly just turns into its opposite without the collapse or defeat of its army, the ‘state on wheels’ as it was once called.  Or without the collapse of the power of the proletarian/bureaucrat Party.  Reversing a mass revolution in the back room.  Again, capitalism is not merely an economic system – but a political/economic system.  This is why Marxists refer to ‘political economy’ – not just ‘economics.’   Which is why not just economic issues have to be dealt with.  Did the Bolshevik revolution triumph in October 1917?  Or only when the main industries were nationalized?  The question answers itself.  We can date the end of the USSR; we can date the end of the Polish workers state, the Hungarian workers’ state, etc.  Not very difficult.  Not so in China.  Why? 

Ultimately behind Blanks’ views are a sort of ‘defencism.’  It is no accident that the US is making China a new target, encircling it militarily.  It is no accident that the US opposes a Chinese-controlled international bank.  Nor is it unusual for the allies of American capitalism in the CCP and among Chinese neo-liberals to still call for more ‘liberalization’ and more focus on ‘growth.’  Or why they block with the Chinese right-wing all the time.  Why?  Because China is a new ‘imperialist’ power?   Actually the capitalists know that the situation regarding ‘communism’ is not anywhere near complete in China.  Even capitalist banks are not agreeing on what part of the economy is controlled by the state and what isn’t – some see low, others high.  The point is that China is still ‘transitioning’ – the question is not settled.  Intellectual surrender by the Left is no help to the Chinese masses.  If they are actually internationalists, failing to understand what to defend within China will not allow them to intervene in China in the right way.  And many leftists – like Schactman so long ago – have already surrendered the gains of the Chinese revolution that still remain.  It is time to defend China in the right way.

Prior reviews on China:  “Minqi Li’s, “The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy,” Wang Hui’s “The End of the Revolution and the Limits of Modernity,” Samir Amin's“The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism” and Yeuzhi Zhao's “China: The Fall of Bo Xilai & the “Chongqing Model” from Monthly Review. (Use blog search box, lower left.)  

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 7, 2015
Bandiera Rossa Triumfera!

Commune de Cortona, Toscana, Italia

Monday, March 30, 2015

Not So Glorious

"A Blaze of Glory,” by Jeff Shaara, 2013

Shaara is probably the premier writer on the Civil War right now, following in the footsteps of historians Bruce Catton, James McPherson & Shelby Foote.  His novels of the war are historical fiction, but provide a living picture of the battles, strategy, tactics and personalities involved.   As far as they go, they are accurate.   But it seems that no one has noticed that his books are devoid of politics – devoid of black people or slavery – devoid of any negative background to the especially ‘Southern’ cause.  It looks like he’s trying to sell his books to everyone, including unreconstructed Confederates.
Shiloh Church Today
His father Michael wrote the first in the series, “Killer Angels,” about the battle of Gettsyburg and especially the struggle at Little Round Top.  The son followed with two more books on the Eastern campaigns, “Last Full Measure” and “Gods and Generals.”  The latest series cover the western front - Shiloh (“A Blaze of Glory,”) to Vicksburg (“A Chain of Thunder,”) to the campaigns around Atlanta and Savannah (the latter to be released in May.)  While roundly ignored by some, the western theater was for the most part a long string of victories for the anti-slavery cause, from seizing New Orleans in 1861 all the way to Sherman’s entry into Savannah, Georgia in 1864.  Shaara is attempting to correct that impression – though it is not one that those actually familiar with the war would have. 

This book is about Shiloh in  western Tennessee.  The titles of the books attempt to give a romantic and somewhat gauzy cover to the writing.  The battle of Shiloh was no ‘blaze of glory.’  It was a bloody mess.  But you can’t very well call the book, “A Bloody Confusion” or “2 Days in a Living Hell,” though it would be more accurate.  

Shaara himself attempts to improve upon his father’s original formula which focused exclusively on the actions of the various generals or commanders in the first books.  He has now introduced one enlisted man in each army, and even will include a female civilian in his book about Vicksburg.  In this book on Shiloh it is a union soldier named Bauer from the 16th Wisconsin, part of Prentiss’ division recruited out of Milwaukee.  Prentiss’ division formed the central unit of the ‘Hornet’s Nest’ that crushed ‘secsesh’ attacks for many crucial hours.   For the Confederate army, it is a mounted trooper named Seeley, riding with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the infamous murderer of Fort Pillow and the most successful cavalryman west of the Appalachians. 

Exposed is one of two major conceptual flaws in the book series – the ‘great man’ theory of history. In this book that angle is somewhat mitigated, but still the focus is on Grant, Sherman, Sidney Johnston, the leader of the Confederate Army; Prentiss and a top aide to Johnston, Harris.  That focus gives us a window into the mistakes and successes of the leaders, which is invaluable.  Yet what is involved beyond that – as in any battle, class struggle, mass protest or strike – are the individual actions of thousands of people and lower-level leaders, and the population that surrounds them.  At this point in history, that is not a radical thing to point out, yet so much history, film and ideology in the U.S. is still centered on a select few ‘heroes.’  Even the film “Selma” did that. (‘Selma’ is reviewed below.)

The second major conceptual flaw is the lack of politics.  There are no black people in these books as yet. Glimpsed twice in passing perhaps.  Yet they are the unknown ‘other’ that undergirds the whole war.  The portrayal of Forrest, for instance, praises his daring solo charge into a brigade of union infantry at the end of the battle of Shiloh, in which he grabbed one small man to use as a shield while still riding his horse!  Yet nothing is mentioned of his background – a prominent slave trader and virulent racist, who incidentally went on to murder black and white captives at Fort Pillow.  After the Civil War, he became the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, which was basically the Confederate army in drag – ah, white sheets.  The wives and prostitutes that follow the army are mentioned, but almost nothing about the masses of black ex-slaves flocking to the Union armies.  Nothing about the politics of the various generals is written about – just their allegiance to whatever home state they lived in, north or south.  Shaara has essentially de-politicized the Civil War.  He has neutered it of economics.  He has turned it into a military encounter based on geography and nothing more.  

But on to what Shaara does best.  Shiloh was the collision of two large armies full of mostly green, inexperienced soldiers in a woods just south of the Tennessee River, a thick woods full of deep ravines, minor roads, dotted with a few fields, saturated with water, muddy, wet and cold.  All centered between a little log church, Shiloh, at an unknown crossroads and a pond that became saturated with blood.  The Union army suffered from complacency, slowness and inexperience, the Confederate army from divided leadership, arrogance and slowness too.  Shaara makes you relive this battle as if you were there, and this is his skill as a novelist – all based on deep research.  

It was probably Sherman’s worst day.  Sherman in this book is still fretting over the Union route at the First Bull Run, where he saw the Union army run in panic and fear.  Grant’s army is camped in the fields south of Pittsburg Landing, waiting for Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio to join them so they can move south and attack the Confederate rail head at Corinth, Mississippi and cut that rail line to the east.  Sherman here is trying to keep his soldiers calm and in doing so ignores the increasing number of reports of Confederate cavalry patrols, cannon fire, aggressive captives talking about how the whole Union army would be crushed, even sightings of gray troops in the woods.  There is no reconnaissance in force ordered by Sherman or Grant, as both of them discount a surprise attack. Even the Union cavalry seems not to stray far from camp.  Yet that is exactly what happens – a surprise at dawn on Sunday, April 6th, 1862.  If they had thought about it for a minute from the Confederate point of view, attacking Grant’s army before the arrival of Buell was the only sensible thing to do.

On a smaller level it reminds me somewhat of Stalin disbelieving months of reports from his own spies and military sources that the Nazis were planning military action against the USSR. Which almost led to the loss of Leningrad and Moscow.  

So if you can imagine mostly new Union troops encamped in their white tents, getting up from bed, preparing breakfast only to have long lines of Confederate infantry suddenly sighted coming out of the woods to your south – well, a partial route ensued.  No emplacements had been dug, no trees felled, no defensive positions prepared.  Sherman finally realized he was under attack by seeing the butternut uniforms of the enemy infantry himself.  Only Prentiss had advanced in force to meet the Confederate threat.  

Ultimately over a whole day of confused and desperate fighting the union forces are pushed to the high bluffs overlooking Pittsburg Landing when P.T. Bureaugard calls off the last Confederate assault just before evening. He is confident that the next day he can route Grant. Evidently he is unaware that the first units of the Army of the Ohio are coming across the Tennessee and that Lew Wallace’s division of Grant’s army is also coming as reinforcements.  The next day the story is reversed over the same bloody ground.

Ambrose Bierce was in this battle on the Union side and wrote “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” about it. Owl Creek ran along the north-western edge of the Shiloh battlefield. That ghastly story captures the mood of this morbid and cruel encounter.  The Shiloh battlefield is now a federal national park.  Bloody Pond is a shrunken body of water from what I saw 40 years ago.  The wagon trail, the fence along the Hornet’s Nest, Duncan Field, the Peach Orchard, Shiloh Church and the spot where Sidney Johnston died are still to be visited.  This is ‘hallowed ground’ for the blood shed to crush the slave economic system.  Ultimately, while the Union lost more soldiers, the Confederates retreated to Corinth and even abandoned that rail line.  The battle was declared a ‘victory’ for the “North.” but the Union unpreparedness and the stupid Confederate frontal assaults were not victories for the soldiers involved.  

Many books about the civil war are reviewed below, mostly concerning the support for the Union among southerners in nearly every ‘Confederate’ state – i.e. the failure of southern nationalism. Use blog search box, upper left.

P.S. - In the next book on Vicksburg, Shaara finally has one short scene involving an old black man on a Mississippi plantation and one particularily vicious rich planter's wife.  And a single female civilian in Vicksburg tending the wounded. 

Red Frog
March 30, 2015
Commune de Cortona, Italia 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Maleness That Failed

"Affliction,” the Book and Film.  Written by Russell Banks. Film directed by Paul Schrader.  Cast:  Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, James Coburn and William Dafoe. 

This film is based on one of the most powerful stories by one of the top fiction writers in the U.S. – Russell Banks.  Banks concentrates, not in a political way, but in a graphic way, on the life of working-class people in New England and Florida who live in trailer parks or under bridges, troubled men and boys who drive buses, engage in theft and petty drug dealing or are the town snow-plow driver and cop.  “Affliction” itself is set in a small cold New Hampshire town, Lawford, in forests and mountains covered in snow, where summer never seems to appear.  It's sort of like a Fargo deathscape with hills.

Wade Whitehouse is the prototypical working-class male of a certain generation who grew up thinking ‘macho’ was the same as being a man.  His ‘pop’ is a massive and abusive drunk; his mother a meek woman who puts up with it.   Their father verbally and physically abused everyone, including his two ‘pansy’ sons, until they got out of the isolated house.  Both Wade and brother Rolfie still share the scars – they are ‘afflicted.’  Wade became somewhat like his father, though he doesn’t fully realize it.  Rolfie retreated into timidity and books. 

This book is a fitting sequel to Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” That book was also the a story of the failure of a working-class male in the face of wealth.  These books are more than the light-weight stories of “The Great Gatsby” – they truly are the great American novels. 

Class plays a role in this book, as you would imagine.  The men who run this small town – especially Gordon LaRiviere – hire everyone, control who is elected, who becomes police chief, who makes the money, who owns the land.  Wade never really understands how things work, except he’s at the bottom.  When a rich hunter dies in the woods while trying to shoot a buck on the first day of hunting season, Wade absurdly blames his buddy Jack who was the hunting guide.  Really without any proof, just an idea that Jack did it for the money from some mysterious Mafioso - money Wade never has.  This obsession leads to a violent denouement.

Wade’s ex-wife is now married to a guy that drives an Audi, while Wade is still in a beat-up old truck or car.  She won’t let their daughter Jill spend time with Wade, and Jill is afraid of her father, whose anger and rough ways are just below the surface.  She always wants to go home to her upper middle-class household, where bad things usually don’t happen.   Wade can’t make appointments to pick her up on time, can’t deal with his car problems or tooth problems, drinks and smokes weed at the drop of a hat, disappears, has no concept of time – he’s basically poor father material.   

The most gruesome scene is Wade and his girlfriend Maggie’s arrival at the isolated Whitehouse home in wintertime.  In it sits Pop drinking whiskey as usual.  The house is freezing cold, as the furnace has died and Pop has not fixed it.  They ask where Ma is.  Gradually it dawns on them – and not through anything Pop has said – that Ma lies dead upstairs in bed, wrapped in blankets.  Did she die of hypothermia?  At the pre-funeral family meeting, their sister, who is a born-again Christian, tries to lead a prayer.  Pop growls like an angry bear at certain lame Christian clich├ęs, then loudly ends the prayer meeting – which even Wade is scoffing at. 

What is really going on in town is that LaRiviere and a rich businessman are buying up all the property around the mountain for a ski resort, which will destroy the little town of Lawford.  Wade is told that this property grab is going on - and it might even involve his father's house.  But never understands that this is not why the hunter died or was shot.  This ‘conspiracy’ is over his head.  His inability to think logically and instead to react emotionally dooms him. 

The story ends in fire, death and disappearance into Canada.  You will never forget it, nor the ‘maleness’ that fails. 

Other great books by Russell Banks – "Cloudsplitter" (about John Brown),“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Continental Drift,” “Trailer Park,” “The Reserve," "Lost Memory of Skin" and “Rule of the Bone.” (The last reviewed below.)  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought the book at Mayday Books excellent sale / used section.
Red Frog
March 24, 2015