Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Tsar of Detroit

"The Flivver King – A Story of Ford-America,” by Upton Sinclair, 1937

This is the supposedly fictional story of the rise and fall of Henry Ford, a farm-boy inventor who became imprisoned by his billions and became the worst car-company owner in Detroit.  It is also the story of Abner Shutt, a loyal Ford employee who barely ever saw through his owner – but his son did. 

This novel was specifically written for the union organizing drive of the UAW and the CIO at Ford, and helped win unionization at Ford.  Its dialectical structure is based on the class interplay between owner and workers - an interplay which ends in disaster for one. 

Sinclair studied Ford’s autobiography to write this book.  Sinclair knows working class life in detail, and nearly each detail appears in the lives of the Shutt family.  Sometimes poverty and layoffs, physical pain and injuries, foreman harassment, transport issues, company ‘reorganizations,’ inflation, house and car debt, fatigue, economic crashes, mechanization, bargain hunting and endless ‘economizing.’  It’s actually amazing when you read this how little has changed.  Even the near bankruptcy of Detroit in the 1930s jumps out at you like a shock.  Detroit clearly has gotten worse since the 1930s.    

All this the family endures as a natural condition of life.  Father Abner is a loyal and dogged company man since he first worked for Ford on Mack Avenue.  His signature story is of helping push Ford’s original horseless buggy around the streets of Detroit’s Bagley Avenue.  He later works on (and off) at River Rouge, the monster Ford plant in Dearborn that was the heart of the Ford manufacturing empire.  Mother Milly is a weak and careworn woman.  Both are religious.  Son John becomes a Ford engineer and along with his wife Annabelle, a social climber.  Son Hank becomes a gangster, who later works for Ford.  The last son, Tom Jr., becomes a union or ‘Red’ agitator after graduating from college.  He goes on to become a union ‘colonizer’ or ‘salt’ at Ford too. 

All of their lives revolve around the various stages of Henry Ford’s career, who, as Sinclair says, was a ‘super-mechanic with the mind of a peasant.”  Ford’s triumphs of enlightened capitalism prior to 1916 – the higher wages, the pacifism during WW I and opposition to war profiteering, lack of hostility to unions, the moralistic ‘consideration’ for some workers, gradually turns into its opposite by 1937 - vertical monopolies, the lowest wages in the industry, ownership of right-wing newspapers and politicians, vicious speed-up, layoffs, anti-union gun thugs and support for Fascist groupings in the U.S. and abroad. 

This is not the story recently portrayed on the U.S. ‘Government’ Broadcasting System. (“PBS”).  Liberals who want to love capitalists always cite Ford’s initial practice of paying workers so they can afford to buy what they make.  However, with an international market, capitalists do not have to pay domestic workers enough to buy what they make if there is an international market of middle-class consumers that can take up the slack. With globalization, there is.  Thus ‘Fordism’ is an archaic relic.

Sinclair portrays ‘The Battle of The Overpass,” when police and Ford gun thugs opened fire with machine guns and pistols on 3,000 protesting auto-workers outside River Rouge.  4 were killed and more than 50 wounded, and those ended up handcuffed to their hospital beds.  Abner was in the march, as he had been drawn to it in spite of his conservative politics, but he got away.  Sinclair clearly shows that the failure of the “New Deal’ to significantly lift wages or reduce unemployment was one of the reasons behind the strikes in the auto industry.  Of particular humor is Ford’s hobbies, like his fondness for old American antiques and ‘square dancing’ to archaic fiddle tunes, and opposition to ‘Oriental’ styles like jazz and ‘wild’ dancing.  Sinclair knows his history, and in this fictional study of ‘industrial feudalism’ he shows why history is not actually ‘bunk.’ 

This book is of particular interest to auto workers, historians and almost any worker who wants a readable history of class struggle.  But more importantly it shows that 'literature' can actually intersect with social movements - that books do not have to be stand-alone and become isolated aesthetic products, but can instead intersect with their times. 

Other Sinclair books reviewed below – a play, “Oil/Jungle,” the book, “Oil” and the book, “The Jungle.”  Also the book “War is a Racket,” which talks about profiteering during World War I. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
December 17, 2014

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Classic of Black Intellectual Work

"The Souls of Black Folk,” by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903

The story of WEB Du Bois is familiar.  Born in Massachusetts just after the Civil War, the first black man to get a PHD from Harvard; studied in Europe; essayist and activist, founder of the NAACP in 1909, later joining the Communist Party and emigrated to Ghana in the early 60s, where he died.  He is buried in Accra. 

The trajectory of his life is a gradual radicalization of his politics and attitude towards racism in the U.S.  He concluded it would never go away under capitalism and renounced his U.S. citizenship.

This book still resonates more than a 100 years later because the situation has not fundamentally changed for people of color in the U.S.  The book reflects that early period in Du Bois’ life when he, as an educated black person, attempted to ‘uplift’ his people while all the time denouncing their oppression.  In this book he is still optimistic that some kind of rapprochement with the southern racists is possible. But he clearly realizes that the system wants black people to have no political representation.  He says, “the South…is simply an armed camp for intimidating black folk.”  Given the present rebellions against nationwide police murders of black people and the absence of a black political party or real power nationally, nothing has fundamentally changed for the black proletariat. 

Du Bois opposed both Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, the latter in a famous essay in this collection.  Washington had traded not making waves over Jim Crow or forced labor for ‘industrial education’ – limiting the opportunities of black people to trade schooling.  It is not possible to read this essay and conclude that we don’t have our own modern “Booker T Washingtons” in the caste of upper-middle class black politicians, chiefly Barrack Obama.    Du Bois coined the phrase ‘the talented tenth,’ which later black intellectuals like Franklin Frazier and Harold Cruse called the ‘black bourgeoisie.’  Cornel West has just written a book called “Black Prophetic Fire” addressing the very question of political differences among black leaders, difference which really reflect class approaches. 

In a way, Malcolm X adopted a similar approach to Du Bois while in the Black Muslims – self-improvement and a militant anti-racism.   He, too, started to leave this approach behind, moving towards socialism.  The strain solely focusing on ‘self-improvement’ and moralistic scolding of black people still continues through prominent people like Bill Cosby and Obama.  Not to mention a whole strata of right-wing Black Republicans, businesmen and church preachers.  

These essays mix sociology, history, flights of sophisticated literary writing, fiction, political polemics, political recommendations (a ‘permanent Freedman’s Bureau’) and reminiscences of Du Bois’ times in Tennessee and Atlanta.  Du Bois has two excellent chapters on Dougherty County in south-eastern Georgia, a ‘buckle’ of the Black Belt.  He describes exactly how the black tenant serf cotton economy actually worked - the 'crop-lien' system.  It perpetuated never-ending debt to the local white businessman and landlords, and subsequent poverty and ignorance.  Dubois estimated that around 95% of the black people in this county were rural ‘peasants’ or hired hands and did not own land. 

Du Bois uses the phrase ‘the Veil’ to describe the barrier separating black people in the U.S. from normal American life.  He speaks at every moment of the ‘double consciousness’ of being both black and an ostensible citizen.  Du Bois investigates the black Church – about the only space black people could feel safe - and black music (‘sorrow songs’), one of the first to do so.  His most famous quote from the book - "The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.'  Today, the color line and the class line are inextricably mixed, yet still distinct, in every country in the globe. 

This book is essential reading to understand the long history of black radical thought in the U.S. 

"Souls of Black Folk" and ‘Black Prophetic Fire’ are for sale at Mayday.  A review of Du Bois book on "John Brown" is below, along with other reviews of books on the South and black oppression. 

Red Frog
December 13, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Cheapest Labor Colony Inside America

The Neo-Confederate States

With the defeat of the oil and gas lobbyist Democrat Mary Landrieu in Louisiana by another oil and gas lobbyist Republican, the southern U.S. is now a ‘solid south’ dominated by the Republican Party, at least in electoral offices.

Ever since the Democratic Party jettisoned its openly racist and segregationist wing in the 1960s, that voting bloc moved over to the ‘tough on (black) crime’ Republicans.   When the Democrats began to abandon labor under Carter, the movement continued.   Clinton did his best to stem that Republican tide by becoming one.  He executing a retarded black man in Arkansas in the 1992 presidential campaign, got rid of AFDC, passed a strict ‘crime’ bill aimed at the working classes, and then starting funneling military weapons to the police through Joe Biden.  Obama kept these policies in place, the third Democrat to govern by neo-liberalism.     

Yet even with all these concessions to the wage-slave states and their official ideology, the Civil War still goes on. Much of the hatred of Obama from the Republican Party originates from this racist source.  With the weak position of the Democrats, the old Jim Crow voting laws now have their modern equivalent in the lifting of federal voting controls in the south, and a rush by southern states to disenfranchise black, Latino, working-class and young voters.  The Christian Dominists, given birth by the Southern Baptist Convention, are just the latest echo of the original Bible-thumping slavers.  They all expect to be ‘raptured’ soon, so fighting ‘disorder' is just part of their biblical plan. 

Much like the pre-Civil War 1850 compromise with the Southern slavocracy, the Democrats have compromised for 30 years.  Many Democratic leaders are really modern-day Copperheads, who want to coddle Republicanism and unite with them on many of their tenets – war and imperial adventures, budget-cutting, privatization, the drug war, the attack on public education, the dual-track legal system, support for Wall Street, the police and the incarceration state.  They only differ in tactics.  Institutional racism still exists – not in the obvious Jim Crow sense, but in a more subtle yet strong version – in education, housing, employment, the legal system, policing, the media.  Some have compared the police in black neighborhoods to ‘slave patrols’ who carry out modern-day legal lynchings.   

Here is a quote from Britney Cooper, a professor active in Ferguson:

“The old conceptions are dead and gone. The 20th century civil rights project has failed. It has proven insufficient for the challenges of the 21st century. The vote is unprotected, the jury system is a sham, abortion rights are increasingly nonexistent, and urban public schools have become not training grounds for citizenship but holding cells for underprivileged black youth who learn what it means to exist in a state of social death.”

No one wants a real civil war with the south - as a place. The “South” in general is not the culprit, as even W.E.B. Dubois recognized.  One thing you notice about most working-class white people in the south is that bigotry is just a part of their class system.  Ethnicity and class are deeply intertwined.  They are actually extremely subservient and fearful of their white overseers.  Anyone who has spent time around southerners knows that, except when drunk, there is a certain conformist servility about them.  The key insight about the south is that the class system there is stronger than in the north.  Everyone is supposed to respect their 'betters.'  Part of that bargain is that some whites can then look down on the ‘black trash.’  And sometimes even ‘white’ trash gets thrown into the bargain.  This is why unions do poorly among many whites.  They are afraid of losing their little bit of low wages, low-end health care, half-educations, shoddy skills and slightly elevated status in the face of the violent reactionary capitalists who run the south.   Those latter are the real culprits. 

This pathetic situation has been going on since after the Civil War.  The South is consistently home to the lowest social and economic statistics in the U.S. and this affects white people the most, as they are the majority. Ironically, the social and economic statistics for black people show the worst conditions in inequality in mostly northern states, as the white people in the north do much better. This is a legacy of national institutional racism, which is anchored in the rural southern experience and slavery, but has obviously affected the material and social conditions of whites too.

Why has the dead weight of the neo-Confederacy lasted so long, in its various forms?  The first thing to know is that the northern and international capitalists – Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the automobile industry, the oil and coal industry – needed a cheap labor colony within the U.S. An English-speaking maquiladora with a southern drawl.  And they got one.  They don’t always have to go to China.  Southern servility is useful now.  But in the 1930s white and black southerners organized sharecroppers, initiated large labor strikes in textile, docks and mining and elected left-populists like Huey Long.  So there is nothing ‘eternal’ about the servility of the majority of the white working class in the south.  Yet the Democrats long ago gave up on them.  Starting with Georgian neo-liberal businessmen Jimmy Carter and following with Arkansas’ lawyer Bill Clinton, whose wife sat on the board of Wal-Mart, they remade the Democratic Party to the right.  The official labor movement followed, starting back in the late 1940s by cooperating with the Dixiecrats and cutting themselves off from southern black – and white labor. 

So what to do to untie this Catch 22?  Mary Landrieu was an example of the modern Democratic ‘blue dogs’ – a species that is going extinct. Southerners now vote for another kind of dog - rabid ‘yellow dogs’ named Republicans.  The Democrats have abandoned the working class nationally and in the south specifically - and the Republicans have fed a fake superiority to white workers in order to make the cheap labor southern Maquiladora possible.  This has resulted in dividing labor and keeping out unions, and the strategy has spread to the whole nation now.  In effect, no one really represents the working classes anymore.  This is especially true in the 'enterprise zone' that is the U.S. south. 

What we need is a large group of "Atticus Finches" to oppose the rabid yellow dogs.  Instead of giving up on white workers as so many (white) middle-class liberals counsel, or leaving the south to neo-segregationists, secessionists and Christian Dominionists - or insulting everyone who lives there as a 'redneck' - it is incumbent on the left and labor movement to actually provide an alternative. Movements and organizations have to convince white workers that their real enemy is the white businessman who runs everything.  That means taking a class line at all times – not just culture-war, identity politics, with which the electoral appeal of the Democratic and Republican Parties are both exclusively based on.

Turn the civil war into a class struggle.

Books reviewed directly related to the Civil War:  The Civil War in Florida,”Why the South Lost the Civil War,” “The Bloody Shirt,”County of Jones,” “Guerillas, Unionists and Violence on the Confederate Home Front,” “Slavery by Another Name” and “The New Jim Crow.”  Commentaries:  A Snake Slithers Up the Mississippi.” 

Red Frog
December 10, 2014

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Helium Economy

"Tales of Two Cities – The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York” edited by John Freeman, 2014

This is a collection of stories out of New York City, nearly all in the near present.  Given the title, the stories ostensibly concentrate on class conflict or contrasts between the classes.  Instead it is a somewhat disappointing grab-bag of slices-of-life, usually written by ordinary people, combined with some that actually relate to the issue.  The weakness is in the editor, John Freeman, who agrees with Walt Whitman to the effect that he was ‘against riches but not the rich.’   On inequality, Freeman says:  ‘Inequality is not an issue of us and them, the rich and poor. You often see it in these same so-called divisions in one family, like mine.”  Are these 'so-called' divisions?  Are they in most families?  Even the last part of the title itself is a cliché.  The first part, of course, was part of DeBlasio's election campaign sloganeering, through which DeBlasio won overwhelmingly.

For those of us who don’t live in New York – which is the majority of people – fatigue with New York tub-thumpers is high.  Many of these stories basically revolve around how secretly great New York is – even the one by David Byrne of the Talking Heads – who calls it the ‘most exciting city on earth” full of ‘vibrant playgrounds.’  Another gushes over the exciting Bangladeshi food in Queens or my first apartment in the city.  These stories will mostly be of interest to New Yorkers, who can identify the streets they walk on and neighborhoods they live in, and in that way enhance their own important sense of self.  The problem here unfortunately also lies with the stories chosen, which are not really about the topic.  Few of these stories are fiction, most are personal narratives.  

Some of these 31 stories are surprisingly sophomoric, even from published writers.  Some you could read in a zine about working shit jobs. Some are amazingly out of place, like the writer in the east Hamptons on Long Island writing about her bucolic cottage, dropping famous names, and pointing out that she lives next to some really rich person who has just bought a big chunk of land nearby.  Or a transvestite performer trying on a corset.  Another is by a religious fellow slamming atheists.  Freeman even got David Eggers to write a brief intro to a child’s story.  David Eggers!

What I think progressive people really want to read - from outside the city - is the story of the class struggles in New York.   In this collection, real estate and rental issues are the most prominent and working places a distant second.  These are the stories of most value. There is a direct connection between the monetary helium generated by financial, industrial and retail capitalism and inflation of real estate values.  This is going on all over the world in certain cities, as money seeks an outlet.  It can go into conspicuous consumption and into corporate expansion, but it is really found in stock market 'investing' and in real estate.   

They might have well connected a helium hose directly from Wall Street into Brooklyn and the Upper East Side, south Central Park, Midtown and now Soho and the rest. 

One story by a tenant’s rights lawyer who works in the housing courts says, “I’m not trying to stop gentrification.”  Then he follows with, “There is no justice.”  Contradictions abound, just like real life.  One activist writes about community group struggles for a ‘zero rent increase’ position by the city - a position subverted by a DeBlasio appointee.   He says, “the system is rigged’ but ‘maybe we can tip the balance’ - two statements that are contradictory.  One man in love with walking around New York travels from the run-down but friendly and lively confines of the Bronx to the cold and walled-off snootiness of the Upper East Side, which contains 4 of the richest zip codes in the U.S.   Another is a slice off of the “Bonfire of the Vanities,’ a humorous story about a wealthy couple who have to abandon their car in a ‘DeBlasio’ snowstorm, and then get confronted by a black man with a shovel hoping to do their sidewalk.  One of the better written ones is of a somewhat rich Russian émigré who visits a prostitute while his daughter slits her wrists at home.  A classical-music loving Indian cabbie ends up with the Russian’s phone, which was left in the back seat of his cab, and goes to help the girl instead.  Another is by a homeless man who quit New York for a warmer clime.  He says that it is the ‘rich New York’ that we usually hear about, not the other one.  He describes the homeless shelters in the city as New York’s ‘refugee centers.’

The most painful – and incredible – is written by a former Nicaraguan woman living in Bushwick, a working class area in north Brooklyn.  She describes fighting landlords who destroy bathrooms and kitchens with sledgehammers to force tenants to move out of rent-controlled apartments.  She has to use the relatives’ toilet and kitchen regularly, but she won’t move out.  This is the face of New York gentrification, where all real estate potentially glitters like gold.  May its writers someday achieve this too.  No stories about Hurricane Sandy exist in this collection, but you can bet those will take disaster bourgeoisification to the limit.  

 The over-accumulation of capital leads to smashed kitchens and bathrooms;  the under-accumulation of wages leads to the strangling of individuals selling cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island.  They are both intimately related.

Gentrification is not limited to New York, but is happening in every city in the country.  Old neighborhoods and buildings in central cities are being bulldozed for upscale housing developments, retrofitted apartments, parking ramps, fancy stores and upgraded stadiums.  And the ‘other city’ - the people and small businesses that used to rent or lease there?  Gone.  Neither Democrats nor Republicans oppose gentrification normally, as both are wedded to the developers.  Nor will they turn on their base – the corporations, landlords, builders and real estate lawyers who live off this trade, nor the upper middle-class that most benefits from it.  


And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
December 6, 2014

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

New York Strangler Goes Free

A New Movement

From today’s Eric Garner grand jury decision, it is clear police have been given a license to kill for any reason, any time, any way.  If this wasn’t clear with the Michael Brown decision, or many before it, it certainly is now.  Every person of color, especially boys and men, is at risk.  This murdering gang has official sanction.  And everyone now knows it. 

Obama’s issued words of fake concern, handing out dollars for video cameras while refusing to end the miltary arming of police or pledge to change laws. Notice - this killing was filmed and it did no good. The majority of the 'black caucus' in the House and Senate supported the military arming of the police.  This shows that the black mis-leadership class is bankrupt.   As Malcolm X would say, the White House Negro is an enemy of those in the field.  And so are his delegates like Al Sharpton.  This is somewhat ironic, happening in this supposed time of ‘post-racial’ harmony.  The line that ‘you too can be president’ rings hollow.  

It goes beyond the police, as these police methods have been endorsed by the legal system up to the Supreme Court.  Overwhelmingly grand juries indict civilians and let cops go.  Cops are trained to 'shoot to kill' and may use deadly force if they 'feel' they are 'in danger.' 

A new movement is growing among black youth and hard-working people who realize that in this area, nothing has changed for 100s of years in the U.S.  The “Obama goggles’ have fallen off.  The 'system' goggles have fallen off.  We see the reality behind the endless pacifying rhetoric.  Capitalism will not budge. 

The majority of people in New York will show what they think of this criminal decision by the mostly white upper-class members of the secret body they call a ‘grand’ jury.  It should be called the inferior jury.  May the best of New York come out now.  Shut down your city.  No justice, then no peace. Shut down every big city.  The police are backing off.

Black youth are clearly leading this struggle, especially from the epi-center of Ferguson – a new Selma.  This is their Occupy. Let us work for its continuance. 

Here in Minneapolis a youthful, multi-ethnic crowd of hundreds rallied on Tuesday outside the police station on Lake and Minnehaha over Michael Brown.  Some estimated the crowd at about a 1,000.  The crowd moved to block traffic.  One person was run down by an hysterical right-winger in their mini-van.   500 students left South High in Minneapolis as did more in St. Paul, as did students all over the country. On Thursday about a hundred or more blocked the main freeway through town to protest the Garner murder in Minneapolis, our echo to the protests in NY.

I have to say, when black people move, we all move.  Every other single grouping in society - except the rich and their upper-middle class supporters – Labor, Latinos, Native Americans, working people of all colors, students and youth – can overwhelm this system if we hang together.  Or else we will evidently hang separately. 

Red Frog
December 3, 2014

Friday, November 28, 2014

Secular Mysticism

"Fashionable Nonsense – Post-modern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science,” by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, 1998

This book originated as a hoax article published in the American academic journal ‘Social-Text” in 1996 from Duke University in the U.S.  It was a parody of the normal writers in that journal, yet the editors did not notice.  As Sokal/Bricmont point out, the adulation of these mostly French writers has become an intellectual ‘force’ in American and British academics as well.  Many reputable intellectuals are cited as endorsing the wonders of post-modernism in its various forms – Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, Debray, Havel - while others like Stanley Aronowitz are part of the post-modernist method.  The parody itself is included and even for a ‘dim’ reader such as myself it provided guffaws.  Of particular humor is the massive amount of quotes, sub-quotes, parenthetical points, false or non-connections and useless references that clutter the document, visually creating an image of ‘knowledge’ but actually portraying little except name-dropping. 

The authors are professional physicists who analyze flawed humanities’ writers’ attempts at intersecting with science and its methods.  They describe how the humanities' writers don't get the science or math right.  Sokol, in the epilogue, says he is also an ‘old school leftist,’ so there is more going on here than scientific rigor.  At bottom it becomes a philosophical debate.

The book is a take-down of some post-modern, post-structuralist, deconstructionist and semiotic ‘intellectual-speak’ – but it is not a must-read.  It is a book for specialists – and yet it is an intentionally hilarious book too.  It is a slog getting through dense gibberish to get to somewhat more sane mathematical and scientific explanations and footnotes of why these pompous writers are wrong.  Which means skipping over the crap you don’t understand to the points you do.  I figured in high school that getting basic geometry and algebra was all I would need for a lifetime.  That has proved the correct decision – except when you have to read material like this.  However the authors know this and do their best to be clear. 

Just as certain statements by alleged geniuses like Stephen Hawking read like science fiction, and have no factual basis as yet – so some of the key texts of these ‘philosophies’ actually don’t make sense if looked at carefully.  As they put it, many of the writers exhibit ‘a self-assurance that far outstrips their scientific competence.’  What the authors really attack is a sort of radical skepticism or cognitive relativism that questions the existence of objective reality.  Extreme post-modernism can philosophically be called ‘idealism’ – where facts disappear and only 'the observers' verbiage and ideas remain.  It is an academic form of mysticism.  This book is part of the struggle against a fake ‘leftish’ idealism in science and sociology, history and feminism.  In their epilogue, Sokol/Bricmont state that they want to help the Left by combating alleged progressive nonsense disguised as profundities.    

The first target is Lacan – Zizek’s favourite inspiration.  As they put it, Lacanian psycho-analysis “is too vague to be tested empirically.’  If you have wondered why Zizek goes from writing rationally about politics or culture to veering into some hellish underworld of post-Freudian double-speak and bogus associations – Lacan is the answer.  In Lacan’s sacred word-salad, erect penises pop up in the middle of mathematical equations, with no connection between them except proximity   Here is that choice Lacan quote: 

“Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place of jouissance, not in itself, or even in the form of an image, but as a part lacking in the desired image:  that is why it is equivalent to the √-1 of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier (-1).” 

The authors remark that this is more like Woody Allen then Freud.  ‘Psychology’ by way of fractured math.

Another target is Julia Kristeva, who attempts to mathematize linguistics and political philosophy, among other things.  A random quote – “The desire to form the set of all finite sets puts the infinite on stage, and reciprocally, Marx, who noticed the illusion of the State to be the set of all sets, saw in the social unit as represented by the bourgeois Republic a collection that nevertheless constitutes for itself, a set (just as the collection of the finite ordinals is a set if one poses it as such) from which something is lacking:  indeed, its existence or if one wants, its power is dependent on the existence of the infinite that no other set can contain.”

This is one reason why some interpreters of Marxism have not been a total success. 

Sokol/Tricmont take on unfamiliar (to me) people like ‘anything goes’ Feyeraband, Latour, the feminist Irigaray, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Guattari, Virilio and even the editor of ‘Social Text.’  Based on some of these readings, it seems petit-bourgeois feminism has found a weapon against class analysis in post-modernism, as have other narrow approaches.  Irigaray thinks because most mathematics has been done by men (as have other sciences) the scientific method itself is ‘masculine’ and hence flawed.  Irigaray rejects the ‘belief in a truth independent of the subject’ or observer.  She advises women not to: “accept to or subscribe to the existence of a neutral, universal science, to which women should painfully gain access and with which they then torture themselves and taunt other women, transforming science into a new super-ego.” 

This is a rejection of empiricism and fact-finding.  I won’t go on more, but you get the idea.

In their epilogue, the authors account for the rise of post-modernism and subjectivism among certain ‘progressive’ academics to the weakening of Marxism after WWII, as well as the fall of other enlightenment attitudes.  The authors themselves were called ‘culturally conservative Marxists’ at an academic conference in California held by post-modernists.  However the authors then spend a page or so attacking some Marxists for practicing ‘scientism’ too – which is no doubt correct at times.  Yet in the process they accuse historical materialism itself of not being scientific, which is not quite the same thing.  They say this without evidence – not very empirical, but certainly fashionable.  'Sub-textually' they are red-bashing to prove their adversaries wrong and perhaps win sympathy from them.  This is a liberal habit you might have noticed.  This in spite of the continual historic and economic facts that Marxists nearly always employ when talking about historical materialism - the farthest thing from idealism. 

If you are interested in the topic of post-modernism, this book fills a gap.  I read it so you don’t have to – or perhaps you do.

Reviews of Zizek books below:  Living in the End Times,” “Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?” and “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce.”  Mentions of post-modernism regarding art below – “9.5 Thesis” and “Art is Dead.” Mentions of idealism in science below – “Reason in Revolt,” “Big Bang Theory” and “Ten Assumptions of Science.”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 28, 2014

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"If We Burn, You Burn With Us..."

"Hunger Games – MockingJay I,” directed by Francis Lawrence, 2014

This is the third in this series about a revolution in a dystopic U.S. against the brutal and exploitative “Capitol” of Panem.  The books they are taken from were aimed at a “YA” audience (‘young adult’ – really teenagers…) and the theaters are mostly filled with young Millennials who might have read the books as teenagers or not. 

Mocking Jay I locates the action in District 13, a relatively well-armed underground bunker reminiscent of the warren inhabited by the Matrix rebels of that film series.  District 13 was virtually destroyed by Panem's violent Capitol earlier, and they have lived a secret underground life for years.  They now seek to reach out to the other Districts – which are in rebellion through strikes, riots and guerrilla warfare – to take down President Snow and the Capitol.  The rebellions started when Katniss Everdeen shot an arrow into the ‘dome’ of the Hunger Games and destroyed its force field.  This rebellious action, broadcast on TV, unleashed events across Panem. 

Most older people don’t even know about these films.  If none of this makes sense, you might want to watch the first two films. 

In this film, Katniss is a tough supposed teenager, whose tiresome, yet understandable issue is saving her friend and perhaps lover, Peeta, from his imprisonment in the Capitol.  At the same time she is being asked to be the ‘symbol’ of the revolution by the revolutionaries, the 'Mockingjay.'  This bird imitates what it hears – a sort of Appalachian parrot. She is reluctant to commit to the latter. Written this way, Katniss is supposed to represent the majority of people who only think about their family and friends, even in the midst of massive social upheaval and oppression.  At some point her obsession with Peeta in this film becomes almost laughable.  She is, of course, surrounded by determined revolutionaries dressed in Cuban-like fatigues, led by the ever-beautiful and smart Julianne Moore as President Coin of District 13, or Woody Harrelson in his stocking cap and Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last role.

What can we glean from this film from a leftist point of view?  Suzanne Collins wrote her books based on the Iraq War, reality shows and her distaste for inequality.  This particular revolution has immediately devolved into a militarized struggle.  Only in one scene do the lumber workers from one of the Districts attack the storm-trooper guards taking them into the forest to work.  The other scene in District 8 is of black and white rebels and a hospital full of injured civilians in a devastated city – shades of an American Baghdad.  The scenes in the District 13 bunker while it is being bombed reflect a bit what it was like for Iraqis hunkered down under the bunker-buster bombs of the U.S. Air Force.  A massive Capitol dam later gets blown by virtually unarmed civilians in District 5, evidently coordinated by District 13, rushing it with large boxes of dynamite. Suicidal attacks seem to be a theme.

As such, the film does not show a mass pre-violent struggle, in a way removing the people from the film.  Instead this part of the revolution is portrayed as a spontaneous bloody rebellion, with the leadership dispersed and disconnected from the Districts.  Coin wants to use Everdeen as the symbol to unite the Districts, and so the film centers around, oddly enough, creating effective propaganda to this end.  Katniss only gets to go into combat once, shooting down a Capitol jet with an exploding arrow aimed into the turbine. (!)   This focus on propaganda is key – not organizers or parties in the districts or workers seizing the means of production or the formation of clandestine District councils to direct the struggle.  Instead it reflects a ‘televised’ response to oppression. This revolution will be televised.

The main issue is the political nature of the rebellion at this point.  Who are they talking about?  A future U.S., taking the issues of poverty, inequality, militarization, propaganda and surveillance today and drawing them out to a logical conclusion?  Or even a present dictatorship in one of the distant districts of imperial capital.  I think so.  However, the most deluded reviewer, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com, thinks this film represents the “Roman Empire against the Khmer Rouge.”  He says in his review, echoing the drugged Peeta, that “revolutions … almost always end badly.”  For an American to say that is laughable.  O’Hehir thinks this film appeals equally to both the T-Party and the Occupy Left and youth.  Let’s look at these positions. 

District 13 is led by a woman who says the revolution is for ‘democracy’ and having the Districts ‘share the fruit of their labors.’ The Khmer Rouge did not fight for ‘democracy.’ The revolutionaries are not busy exiling or shooting or starving everyone in glasses or in cities.  Nor do they kill or starve other nationalities, as the KR did with the Cambodians with Vietnamese roots.  Women played almost no role in the leadership of the KR, as they were a patriarchal organization.  The people in these rebellions are mostly working class, not peasants or farmers.  We cannot tell what District 13 did before they were bombed, but it seems not to be a rural area of small businessmen and farmers, aka the T-Party. 

Clothing plays an important part in the symbolism of this film.  The organized rebels are dressed like Cuban revolutionaries or Israeli kibbutzim, not the KR.  The KR dressed in the traditional red & white krama scarf, loose black pants and rubber-tire sandals or bare feet.  These rebels are not peasants but instead technical urbanites.  There is no connection between what is in this movie and the KR except in the anti-communist mind of O’Hehir.  O’Hehir claims that Edmund Burke loved the American revolution and hated the French Revolution, and that Collins, the author, is a “Burkean.”  Both revolutions, however, involved violence.  O’Hehir himself is the Burkean here, but in this series, so far, Collins has proved she is not. 

Nor is the Capitol and President Snow like the “Roman Empire.’  Distancing this very clear modern, almost fascist dictatorship by historicizing it back to pre-Christian times is another conservative dodge.   The Capitol (again, no accident in that name) is wealthy, uses television and propaganda continuously, dresses in fancy clothes, eats continually, is high-tech and militarily dominates the Districts.  As President Snow says, the deal is the Districts provide the Capitol with goods while the Capitol responds by providing ‘peace and security.’  This is clearly a more modern empire, much closer to our own.  In fact, in present far-flung outposts of the U.S. empire, rebels opposing dictatorial governments are now using the 'three-finger' salute from the film to express their opposition.  5 coup protesters in Thailand were just arrested for doing this.  Others in Hong Kong used it this week as their protest camp was being cleared by police.

The director, Lawrence, had to choose while making this film if he was to stay with the juvenile focus on Katniss rescuing Peeta or her sister, or have Katniss grow up a bit and realize there is much more that is going on than the situation of her family or friends.  She does realize it when she sees that miners' District 12, her district, has been leveled and only 900+ people escaped.  The rest were firebombed.  Of course, who is going to dig the coal now?  The movie reflects no real understanding of how the Capitol’s economy functions and just scares the viewer.  You cannot liquidate your whole working class if you are a capitalist.  

Sequels, remakes, pre-quels, splitting one book into two films - as done here - are all aspects of the comodification of the arts.  Art ends at a certain natural cultural point - but if tickets are bought, then commercialization begins and 'stretches' the art into something else.  This is no secret, and is one of the ordinary complaints about this film and others. But it is not the end of the story about this film.

The director chose to stay with the text and the juvenile focus, not showing much growth by Everdeen.  In this, I think it also reflects a hesitation about the word ‘revolution’ that inhabits the U.S. polity.  And quite rightly.  After all, revolution is not a triviality.  It will occur only if the overwhelming majority of the people in the modern American ‘districts’ finally have had enough and unite against the capitalist class, their politicians and their paid military mercenaries and defend themselves.  At that point it will be the most democratic moment in U.S. history.    In the U.S., the real preparation and movement of a revolution will not be televised, much as Gil Scott Heron said.  It will happen outside the frame of cable news - until the end.  Hopefully the stations can be taken over before even then.  However, across the seas in the 'districts' of American/European/Japanese capital, fighting dictators is not something in the future.  It is now.

But on a less orthodox level, the word ‘revolution’ is being used more and more by social democrats like Naomi Klein, Christian anarchists like Russell Brand, enraged intellectuals like Chris Hedges and many other progressives to denote ‘a big change’ – not necessarily one involving armed self-defense like Malcolm X.  Both of these concepts co-exist together in the political and cultural atmosphere.  While juvenile, somewhat dull and limited, this film spreads that idea - in both forms - further among youth.

Prior reviews of the first two films in this series below - "The Hunger Games" and "Hunger Games - Catching Fire."

Red Frog
November 23, 2014

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Let Them Eat Grass

"The Heart of Everything That Is – The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, 2013

This sweeping novelistic history reads like a film, and should be one.  The 300 year war against the Indigenous people of the U.S. is a story that is still being told.  The book is the mostly unknown story of Red Cloud, who defeated the U.S. in 1868 after northern plains warfare lasting years.  He signed a treaty that made the government close the Bozeman Trail through Wyoming and Montana and abandon 3 forts along it – a first.  He was able to unite at different times the 7 ‘councils’ of the Lakota Nation and the Cheyenne, Nez Perce, Shoshone and Arapaho in a joint force, something almost unheard of.  Crazy Horse appears in the story as one of Red Cloud’s lead fighters.

It starts with the forced migration of the poor Sioux Nation from the forests of Minnesota to the plains around the Black Hills – “the heart of everything that is.”  Red Cloud’s early life, his rise in the tribe of Oglala Lakota and his subsequent successful campaign against the white invasion of native land are described in detail.  And his denouement – dying on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at 88. 

Drury/Clavin based much of this story on the recent re-discovery of Red Cloud’s ‘memoir’ – stories he told to a white friend at Pine Ridge that were transcribed every night.  In it are descriptions of Red Cloud’s escapades battling other tribes, stealing horses, enduring the ‘sun dance’ and finally becoming a ‘big belly’ tribal war leader.  These stories lead up to the epic 1866 battle around Fort Phil Kearney in Wyoming – an early version of the defeat of Custer.  It was a face-off between General Carrington, ensconced in his newly built fort - and Red Cloud's confederation of tribes.  There the overly-aggressive Captain Fetterman led 87 soldiers to their doom, when he found himself surprised by a force of 2,000 warriors.  In that battle, Crazy Horse ultimately goaded the Federal troops into chasing him by ‘mooning’ them – at least according to Crazy Horse’s family stories. 

This book resonates for many reasons – not just the ‘colorful’ or riveting history you are reading.   After all, you are hoping Red Cloud wins.  In a way, the wars against the various native tribes on the north American continent were a template for the growing colonial and eventually imperial U.S. project – which has now put 1,000 forts all over the world.  This long guerrilla war presaged Vietnam – and Afghanistan.  It was predicated on ethnic cleansing and removal of peoples, which led to Indian on Indian fighting, much like the U.S. wars in the Middle East accelerated Sunni/Shia fighting.  The quote “let them eat grass’ came from a Minnesota trader when he was told the Indians were starving waiting for the late supply of ‘treaty’ food to arrive.  Our own western Marie Antionette.  He died at the hand of the Dakota, who stuffed grass in his mouth.  Native people were sub-humans – and, as carnivores know – making something sub-human means you can kill it more easily.  Genocide was the new plan, replacing an earlier vision of ostensible or propagandistic 'cooperation' between whites and natives.  Clueless generals abounded – nothing new about that – who thought fighting Red Cloud was like fighting in the Civil War.  The split between ‘fort’ Indians and ‘hostiles’ certainly describes Malcolm X’s description of the House Negro and the Field Negro, or the labor movement’s description of company brown noses and union men.  The destruction of the buffalo down to l00 animals destroyed the life source of these hunter/gatherer peoples – a rape of nature that is still familiar.  The white hunters, who got off trains, did not even eat the meat, but left it to rot on the prairie. 

Ultimately the war waged by the Federal government was all about protecting a 400 mile ‘short-cut’ to the Montana gold fields.  Later this became a fight for Black Hills gold, which led to the events on the Little Big Horn.  This route, northwest of the Oregon Trail, was called the Bozeman Trail.  Bozeman was a loudmouthed southerner who wanted to make money guiding wagon trains to Montana.  As the authors put it, the monetary system needed gold after the huge debts of the Civil War and later the financial panic of 1873.  ‘Manifest Destiny’ was being driven by the needs of early mercantile capitalism.

Drury/Clavin don’t prettify the native tribes. The Lakota were a patriarchal group.  The women and girls did most of the work but hunting and war.  While they worked around the teepees, the men and boys sat around and played games or talked.  The Sioux were pushed out of Minnesota by better armed Algonquin people – the Anishinabe/Chippewa - who had gotten guns from the white men.  The Lakota in turn moved west, and like the Texas Comanche, adopted the horse, and with horses, crushed other tribes.  Torture and vivisection of bodies was common in warfare, and almost no prisoners were taken.  They once ran into a small, hunted tribe in Nebraska that had been forced to move all the way from Ohio.  The Lakota never, however, got enough decent guns to be able to outgun the Federals, and used bows, hatchets and lances in these battles.  The Federals were armed with 6-shot Colts and 7-shot Spencer carbines.  Firepower was another reason why the Federals were able to ultimately win these wars.  And, as retailed in “Empire of the Summer Moon” about the Comanches, alcohol, the Christian religion and disease all played a role in destroying the strength of the tribes in the northern plains.  

Drury/Clavin also detail the story behind McMurtry's book, "Lonesome Dove," touch on the distance between Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, and explain finally why Red Cloud became a 'reservation Indian.'

Native peoples in the U.S., Mexico, Canada and across Latin America are still fighting against the continuing onslaught of capitalism.  First Nations are in the front line against the tar sands, the XL Pipeline, fracking, environmental degradation and here in Minnesota, the renewed destruction of wolves.  Of note, one of the largest Native demonstrations against racism was held in the Twin Cities several weeks ago when the Washington “Redskins” came to town to play football.  While Red Cloud is buried at Pine Ridge in South Dakota, the struggle – perhaps not with bows and arrows anymore – goes on. 

Other books with Native themes reviewed below:  Empire of the Summer Moon,” "This Changes Everything" and “Indian Country Noir.”

Red Frog
November 19 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Cop Gate

"Bad Cops, Bad Cops – What Ya Gonna Do When They Come For You?"

As we await the predictable Grand Jury decision in the Michael Brown murder, let us reflect on the police.  Nearly every institution in this society has come to low repute among many – even, now the Red Cross, which has been exposed as top-heavy organization more interested in donor dollars than helping people, especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  Of course, Grand Juries themselves are kangaroo courts loaded with secret ‘prominent’ citizens, where the accused has few or no rights - unless you are a cop. 

Then there is ‘Pointergate.”  The police here in Minneapolis recently collaborated with a right-wing reporter at Hubbard-owned KSTP-5 television station to ‘gang-bait’ the Democratic Mayor of Minneapolis, Betsy Hodges.  Hubbard owns about 13 TV stations, 30 radio stations and cable stations and is #764 on the Billionaire List according to Forbes.   Hodges and a black neighborhood activist pointed their fingers in a goofy pose – while, incidentally, standing next to the Head of the Minneapolis Police, Janee Harteau, who was just out of the picture.  The reporter, with input from the Minneapolis police – probably John Delmonico of the Police Union – alleged they were flashing ‘gang signs.’

Now mild-mannered Betsy Hodges wouldn’t know a gang sign if someone taught it to her.

This is an occasion where social media and the as-of-now ‘free’ internet totally destroyed the narrative the billionaire, his reporter and the cops were trying to create.  Nor is it the first time the internet has immediately called ‘bullshit’ on some statement or event -  it is happening more and more, whether with sexist creeps in Silicon Valley or quacks like Doctor Oz.  In effect, the capitalist media was not able to control the story.  Harteau carefully did not join in.  She is a lesbian and the first woman to be head of the police, and sees it as her job to do PR for whatever fuckups the police get into.  Hiring a gay woman to helm a police department does not do away with the role of the police in a capitalist state, but you got to admire their PR skills.  It is putting ‘lipstick on a pig,’ almost literally.

The last mayor of Minneapolis, a Democratic empty suit named Rybak, loved the police union.  Hodges is a bit to Rybak’s left and has an Afro-American husband who was at one time a black radical.  Hodges – and much commentary – agreed that this provocation by KSTP and the police was in retaliation for the City Council recently mandating that police wear television cameras during arrests.  This is logical because the taxpayers of Minneapolis have for years been paying millions in out-of-court settlements over police brutality.

Which gets us back to Ferguson.  The camera idea came from that situation.  As Russell Brand and every reporter has noticed, riot gear is flowing into the St. Louis and Ferguson police departments since Brown was killed.  The ‘Justice” Department has not made any findings, and is instead allowing these thugs to arm up.  The preachers are kneeling, the Democratic Party politicians are pleading for peace.  Nothing has changed except a movement has begun to form among black youth as the “Obama goggles’ have fallen off. 

Police are the highest-paid group of ‘civil’ employees in almost any jurisdiction – County, City and otherwise.  While everyone else gets cut, the police remain for the most part immune.  Police review boards are gutted - in Minneapolis the most-left wing person on the Board, David Bicking, was removed administratively.  John Delmonico’s Minneapolis police ‘union’ is feared, as it is the only ‘union’ that anyone respects – even Republicans.  It has been a long time since the 1910 Boston police strike over better working conditions for cops.  Unfortunately, this ‘union’ is not the same as an electrical workers union or a mechanics union.  Because cops will be called out to break strikes by the latter. Because the police are an arm of the capitalist state.  The naïve calls from Occupy to police that ‘you are the 99% too!’ might need a little bit of sharpening. You will find individuals who might work with dissidents.  But only that.

Worship of the police in the U.S. is broadcast every day through unreal police procedurals on TV like 'NCIS,' 'Law & Order - SVU,' 'Blue Bloods,' 'The Mentalist,' 'Cold Case,' 'Criminal Minds.Just as we should ‘support the troops’ we also should ‘support the cops.’  It is never noted in these shows that half of all murders are not solved and that most victims are not white or that ‘evidence’ is many times incorrect or faked. Misbehavior by police is absent – or glorified.  Internal Affairs is the enemy. Cops are geniuses.  The real alternative police procedurals show up every day on the internet in cell phone videos and audios of beatings, shootings or killings of relatively innocent people by cops, but that doe not find its way into TV’s fairy tales. 

Here in Minneapolis the hated Rich Stanek was re-elected Sheriff of Nottingham – ah, Hennepin County, the county in and around Minneapolis.  Stanek’s office evicted thousands of residents from their foreclosed homes.  He helped oust Occupy from the Plaza at the Hennepin County Government Center.  He cooperated with the DHS illegally arresting and detaining activists protesting the Republican Convention in 2004. He enforces the drug war to enrich his department and harass minorities, and lies about marijuana.  He collaborates with ICE to deport Latino workers. The Metro Gang Strike Force, in which Hennepin County Sheriffs cooperated, was riddled with scandal and ultimately shut down.  The Sheriff is key to the repressive structure in the City, which is why you have to have a CJS degree or police accreditation to run for this office, at least as I understand.  No Hunter Thompson’s allowed here. Civilians are not wanted.

Will the camera idea work?  Well, the report is mixed.  Statistics on problems are down for departments that use them.  However, sometimes the cameras are turned off at critical moments – oh accidentally!  Other times even while filming – remember the homeless man that was shot in the back in Arizona by heavily armed police – it doesn’t matter.

The real problem is that police departments are not part of the population, especially the poor, the working-class, or black, Latino and Native populations.  It is a force over and above the population. As such no matter how much tinkering – community policing, lesbian or black police chiefs, National Night Out, cameras, review boards – you cannot change this essential nature of the police. 

At some point, the population will have to learn to police itself with armed neighborhood committees.  The present police certainly need to be removed from some neighborhoods.  The former is a revolutionary solution, and one that will come when the majority class can no longer tolerate the ‘blue-bloods.’

(Reviews on police issues – book review “Rise of the Warrior Cops,” TV reviews, “The Wire,” and “Meta-Meaning of Bad Cop Shows,” and commentary – “Ferguson Facts.”)

Red Frog
November 15, 2014

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

No Masters, No Servants

"Workers’ Councils,” by Anton Pannekoek (1946), Intro by Noam Chomsky

Pannekoek was what I would call a Dutch council communist who, incredibly, wrote this book during World War II, from 1941 to 1946.  It is a sweeping and perhaps familiar look at world history and the situation of the working class at the time.  He takes into account the long history of working class rebellions – the Paris Commune, the Belgian suffrage strike of 1893, the German and Russian revolutions, councils in China and Spain, the English shop stewards movement being mentioned.  Pannekoek was an astronomer as well, hence the emphasis in this book on industrial ‘technique’ – material knowledge and skills, statistics, bookkeeping and scientific understanding.  He thinks that workers’ councils are the primary form of working class organization, while working class parties are irrelevant or harmful.  Pannekoek considers the council form to be Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’  This is what marks his analysis as different from the versions of ‘Leninism’ that have been handed down by various sectors of the communist movement.

The book’s main strength is its description of what it takes for the working classes to overturn a social order, and begin to run a new society through the council form. It is not so much workers’ numbers or brute physical force as it is their control of the means of production and their eventual intellectual strength.  As he says, “…the solidity of a system of exploitation depends on the lack of capacity of the exploited class to discern their (own) exploitation.”  He dwells in detail on the stages of resistance and self-organization, in ascending order – trade unionism, strikes, shop occupations, general strikes, political strikes, council formation/dual power and ultimately overthrow of the state.  In the process, he dismisses the Communist Parties, syndicalism, industrial unionism and anarchism.  In essence, Pannekoek believes that a class cannot win power unless it is able to actually visualize and then practice power – as a whole, as a majority.  His analysis uses a mixture of organization and spontaneity.  Pannekoek:  “The action is not the result of deliberate intention; it comes as a spontaneous deed, irresistingly…”  And he follows with: “Organization is the life principal of the working class, the condition of liberation.”

Pannekoek claims the experiences in Russia and China, with their weak working classes, were “Asiatic’ examples, which led to a degenerated or deformed ‘state socialism’ or ‘state capitalism.’  He equates these two ostensible social formations as the same, oddly enough.  This description, in spite of the archaic term ‘Asiatic,’ helps illuminate the weaknesses of the urban working class in these areas.  But there is also the stagist implication that the working classes in those countries had to wait for Europe.  He thinks that successful social revolutions in Europe or the U.S. (and now other rapidly proletarianizing areas) will bypass the ‘one Party’ vanguard model, as well as the social-democratic Party model of parliamentary/ evolutionary/ electoral socialism due to the development of these societies.  As to the latter, he seems to oppose any kind of electoral action at all.

This book shows how far the working class – at least in the U.S. – has to go before it can become conscious of itself, let alone active in attempting to organize its own mass institutions or take power.  No matter what kind of activist you are, this point is quite simple. This book reflects an earlier understanding of the role of the middle-classes, which have now grown in influence in Europe and the U.S. and other parts of the world. For instance, what do you do with the millions of white-collar workers in ‘advanced’ capitalist countries who work in useless occupations like health billing, law, advertising, security, finance, sales, etc.  Nor does it deal with the present 24/7 propaganda network of capital. 

Above all it reflects a somewhat larger naiveté as to what it will take to militarily defeat the capitalist state, which he says is the capitalist classes’ ace-in-the-hole.  Not just the capitalist propaganda network, their ownership of production and wealth, their control of armed thugs – it is the capitalist state that stands directly in the way of a social revolution.  This is where a Party or parties or bloc of parties can play a temporary role in bringing down that state, by almost military organization - especially in conditions of illegality.  Council’s alone should be able to be the deciding bodies, but as organizations they will not be able, alone, to take the military actions necessary to defeat the present state and its armed forces.   If the parties cooperate with the councils and try not to dominate them in a sectarian way – then a working relationship can exist.  After all, working class parties are part of the class, not outside of it, just as are unions.

Pannekoek opposes bureaucratism in all its forms – union, party or ‘socialist’ state.  In this he reflects the long experience of radical workers in the class fight.  However, he does not address the issues of possible bureaucratism in the counsels themselves – councils that are charged with managing the revolution, then a new society.  This starry-eyed view hides the fact that bureaucratism can occur in many different organizations unless consciously opposed.  Yet a bureaucracy is not the same as an opposing economic ‘class’ with its own means of production and period of history – which Pannekoek, anticipating Schactmanism and Maoism – seems to believe.  Marx never posited a ‘new class’ bureaucracy that would intercede between socialism and capitalism as an historic stage of material enrichment. 

Pannekoek analyzes the formation of the bourgeoisies in England, France, Germany & the U.S., offering astute observations on their subtle differences and subsequent impact on the working classes.  He calls nationalism the ‘essential creed of the bourgeoisie’ and praises real democracy as a natural organization of human communities.  Pannekoek attempts a full explanation of almost everything happening around the 2nd World War.  Fascism is ‘the response of the capitalist world to the challenge of socialism.’  He follows with analyses of National ‘socialism,’ Japanese imperialism, the rise of China, colonialism, all in the context of war, and makes predictions, some of which turning out to be true.  All this written in the ruins of World War II, the bloodiest conflict in human history, a capitalist war through and through.  A war that Pannekoek says ‘inaugurated a new epoch’ for the workers of the world.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 12, 2014

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Who Did You Wear Today?

"Stitched Up – The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion,” by Tansy E Hoskins, 2014

Hoskins is a young English Marxist who has written a break-through book on clothing – or as it is called in academe – ‘fashion.’  Many male leftists in the U.S. think clothing is an after-thought and anyone not wearing a t-shirt, blue jeans and dirty sneakers or boots all the time is bourgeois or something.  Typical male workerist stuff, but there it is. 

Marxists and workers have used clothing and fashion in iconic ways. The Bolsheviks were known as the ‘men in leather jackets.’  There is Lenin’s cap, Mao’s jacket, Che’s beret, Trotsky’s 3-piece suit and glasses, the Black Panther Party’s leather jackets and berets, Castro’s military fatigues, Malcolm X’s suit and short hair-style, Ho’s wispy beard and the Vietnamese ‘black pyjamas,’ Chavez’ red shirts, the red bandannas worn by U.S. miners in the 1920s around their necks (which got them called ‘red necks’), Palestinian ‘keffiyeh’ scarves, black power dashiki’s and Afros, Nehru jackets worn by African socialists like Julius Nyerere, red bandannas worn over mouth and nose by street protesters in our time, union jackets, protest T-shirts, red and black armbands, protest buttons, camouflage worn by U.S. autoworkers, meat-packers and miners in the strikes in the 1980s, etc.  Che Guevara’s beret image is reported to be the most reproduced image in the world. 

Clothing is about the most intimate ‘product’ we use everyday - its use value is right up there with food and shelter.  However, somehow it is to be ignored – perhaps because of its female associations.  Ignoring clothing and other body adornments as cultural factors is ignoring one of the most immediate and unavoidable impressions people make.  Fashion is one of the biggest capitalist industries – the third richest human in 2013 was a Spaniard who owns Zara, which sells cheap clothing.  In 2010, fashion sales reached $2,560 trillion.  The industry employs millions of workers across the globe. Hoskins explores every aspect – oligopolistic ownership of designer brands, production and labour conditions, advertising and fetishism, clothing and women, racism in the industry, modeling, fashion blogging, styles like ‘fast’ and haute couture, high fashion 'branding,' dreadful environmental and animal impacts, some WW II history - and the constant of economics.  For instance, there are 6 main high-fashion oligopolies – the same number that control the media in the U.S. 

Take jeans.  Designer jeans.  Spend some time looking at jeans over $100 a pair.  What do you see?  Many of them look like the really-used rack at Savers, a local reuse store.  Carefully ripped and torn, chemically ‘stone’ washed or bleached all over or in various places, using thin denim material to be soft.  This use of bleach pollutes the water; sanding jeans to soften and whiten them produces silicosis in the workers who do it.  The jeans have already had their life spans shortened because the style is ‘worn.’  You are purchasing ostensible authenticity.  And incidentally, you have to come back to get new ones sooner.  This style broadcasts that these are not to be purchased as work clothes anymore but instead as disposable clothes.  The very tight skinny jeans style also leads to clothing that stops fitting at a quicker pace than looser jeans.  Designer jeans have planned obsolescence.  Welcome to the idiocies of capitalism.

Hoskins goes into detail on the body image of high fashion, and attendant industries like dieting and cosmetics, as destructive to women and models - even leading to the formation of a Models Union in 2009 in London.  She looks at the debased fur and animal skin trade – including the horrible conditions undergone by alligators for Hermes fashion bags that sell for $200K, or by the children who have to strip the alligator skins.  Massive cotton irrigation has drained watercourses like the Azov Sea in Uzbekistan to 15% of their former size.  In China, fabric production itself uses 200 tons of water for every ton of clothes.  The Dow Bhopal disaster was from an explosion of pesticides used for cotton production at that unmaintained facility – a crime yet to be paid for by Dow.  Even clothing recycling promotes the idea that clothing production is a ‘circle’ - when it is really a drain. In 2002 China alone produced 20 billion pieces of clothing – 4 for everyone on the planet.  She criticizes some who allege that ‘fast fashion’ or cheap clothes are ‘working class.’  Marx and Engels both commented that workers in London had access to bad food and poor clothes.  Marx commentated:  “They wear … a suit of tatters.”  Things have not changed that much.  Socialism can change that.

The fire in 2013 at the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh reminded U.S. labor folks of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York.  1,133 died and 2,500 were injured at Rana Plaza, all after being ordered into an unsafe building.  This was the largest garment fire in history. This happened in 2013, a hundred years after Triangle - which we thought we'd never see again  The conditions of 1911 have only been exported to other countries whose labor movements are not yet strong enough to stop them.  Hoskins reveals that even ‘luxury’ brands use this sweat-shop labor.

Hoskins deconstructs the myths around ‘haute couture.’  For instance she delineates the history of high fashion’s collaboration with fascism.  When Paris was occupied, Chanel, Vuitton and Dior continued to dress the Nazi military wives and the Petainist collaborators.  Chanel herself, unlike the cuddly film in which she was played by Audrey Tautou, was ‘anti-Semitic, homophobic, a social climber, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and an active collaborator’ according to Hal Vaughan, who wrote a book about her.  Of course, Tautou was incidentally the commercial representative of Chanel at the time of the movie, which conveniently ended before the war.  Hugo Boss designed and made the original ‘brown shirts’ for the Nazi Party, being a party member since 1931.  Cristobal Balenciaga dressed Franco’s wife in Spain, then moved the Paris where he also dressed the Nazi elite. In 1972 he came out of retirement to dress Franco’s niece. Not all designers are like that, but the majority know where their bread is buttered. 

Given the massive and obvious problems in the garment industries, corporations are trying to respond.  Hoskins analyzes the ‘charity consumerism’ sometimes used to sell clothing – ‘ethical fashion,’ ‘sustainable fashion,' and the like.  Many times this is part of CSR schemes by large corporations to ‘greenwash’ and ‘bluewash’ their products, in order to sell more goods.  She points out two kinds of consumer boycotts – actual political consumers and the cons that attempt to imitate them.  She critiques phoney philanthropists like U-2s Bono, who started a clothing factory in Africa, only to sell it off and have the production moved to another country.  Instead of dealing with the real problem - Africa’s fashion industry was destroyed by cheap imperial imports – Bono joins the crowd.  Or his “RED’ program, which neglects every labour, environmental or political consideration to donate a small amount to fight AIDS.  This only when you buy a top corporate product from Armani, GAP, Converse or American Express.  Or TOMS shoes, which says it will donate a pair of shoes if you buy a pair.  The pairs they donate are really very cheap plimsouls made in Ethiopia, not quality shoes.  This actually allows TOMS to make a larger profit overall and does little for the indigenous African industry. 

Hoskins, however, has not come to degrade all fashion as ‘capitalist’ fashion, but to indicate where it can go right.  Clothing, like all art, crafts and cultural forms, is integral to what it is to be a human being.  We wear clothing every day.  And we can, if we want, dress for the purpose of our minutes - not just in some routine way.  Clothing does not have to be a commodity.  The “Mao suit’ won’t be the only clothing under socialism, as that was in large part a product of massive fear and conformism.  In East Germany, Hungary and other post-capitalist states, nudity was actually a big movement, so clothing might be optional at times.  She describes clothing movements inside capitalism that try to oppose commercialism or capitalism – punk, hippiedom, grunge, rap, the hijab – only to point out that dispersed clothing cannot challenge capital because it is regularly co-opted.  High fashion regularly steals ideas from oppressed groups - Jean Paul Gautier was the most prominent.  Even Top Shop in the UK sold Palestinian scarves for mass sale. 

Class is the prime point in clothing.  A classless society will remove the class markers that mar fashion.  It will halt its wastefulness, environmental damage and exploitative working conditions.  She points to revolutionary Soviet designers like Liubov Popova & Varvara Stepanova, who created quality art clothing to be worn by peasant and working women.  And whose designs flew of the shelves. 

A socialist look at feminism, “Fortunes of Feminism” by Nancy Fraser is also available at Mayday and will be reviewed soon.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 6, 2014