Monday, February 8, 2016

‘You are Rubbish and your Culture is Shit’

“The Football Factory,“ by John King, 1998

This book was heralded as reviving the ‘proletarian novel’ in the U.K.  This is not far off.  King has painted a portrait of British football ‘hooligans’ who fight for their soccer teams in the streets like the teams play in the stadiums.  It centers on pride in your neighborhood and class identity.  It’s white and male and not ashamed.  It’s full of great English and cockney slang, with the most common expletive being ‘c#nt’ – a word referring to men and women who don’t measure up.  It is infused by class hatred and class perceptions, coming down on journalists, careerists, English Trotskyists, bankers and yuppies.  A whole list of wankers.  Oh, and the ‘old bill,’ which seems a really mild way to refer to thug coppers. 
Chelsea Play at Stamford Bridge

It is oddly also interspersed with other stories - of one of the mothers of the lads, who works in a laundromat.  And another, an elderly veteran of World War II who liberated a concentration camp and married a Jewish woman, and kicks shit out of some Paki bashers. A journalist who wants to cover and denounce football fights to further her career.   An erstwhile Trotskyist social worker who combines her paternalistic job with identity politics.  A security guard who creates a war-mongering drone game for computers.

Tommy is a London boy from Chelsea, young and a fighter, who ‘tells it like it is.’  When he’s drunk on pints the book runs on stream-of consciousness’ writing, cascading on for paragraphs like a working-class Joyce.  He looks down on the country bumpkins from rural football clubs in the north and midlands of England, who live in run-down shit towns like Liverpool and Birmingham.  The book is peppered with the names of London tube stops covered by surveillance cameras. There transport and fighting take place, as one crew of mostly white niggers meet up with another for battle. 

The ethnic, national and gender insults run long – but underneath the language there is character.  They hate people who mistreat women.  They insult black people but then have some in their Chelsea gang like Black Paul.  The Indians are wimps, but Tommy loves a ‘banger lassi’ and curry and he knows that the Indians will fight too.  They visit Spain during the European cup finals following the British national team and bond with other Brit fans.  In San Sebastian one guy, Vince, decides he just wants to travel, even though he has no money.  Even patriotism takes a dent.  The book does show how the right is able to influence some working-class people, which also makes it useful.

King is not the football fighter he portrays.  You can tell he has left-wing political sympathies and this view infuses the book, in spite of the anti-political views of the street fighters and their ethnic and gender bashing.  All these guys are working jobs and not on the dole, so they have money to travel to matches, hire coaches, drink lots of pissant beer, even calling an occasional taxi or two.  Tommy works in a warehouse but the work is boring, so street-fighting and the adrenaline rush it brings is the antidote.  At one point he gets so beaten up at the hands of Millwall that he realizes he could die – which seems funny when you think about it.  Ah, the ignorance of youth.  Mostly these punch-ups and kick-downs only involve other groups of men like themselves – not civilians.  What is most important is loyalty to the group and their joint identity – that is the highest calling.

Cockney Rejects in London having a drink-up
Tommy prefers being single, avoids romance and makes do with one-night stands with drunken ‘birds’ in pubs.  His attempt to date a nurse fails, probably because she senses he’s trouble.  Even he knows that dating a nurse is aiming a bit high.

These are the people that in the U.S. might be called white trash, trailer trash, rednecks or peckerwoods. These are the last ‘acceptable’ insults.  As this book makes clear, demonizing working class people, even when they are white, is counter-productive and does no good.  Liberal whites that do this are mostly middle-class clueless wonders, who have no interest in the class struggle.  Black people that do this have more justification.  But ultimately making powerless working class whites a target doesn’t help anyone but the bosses.  The rich really love that shit and they’ll pile on too.  Divide and conquer.  Divide and conquer.  

This is a great book and should be read by anyone who wants to read about this slice of working-class reality.  As one review pointed out, it is more true than all the sociology essays written about football ‘hooligans.’  That is one of the benefits of so-called ‘fiction’ that is ignored by those who only prefer non-fiction.

Other reviews on the English working class:  “Chavs,” “The Outlaws – One Man’s Rise Through the Savage World of Renegade Bikers…,’ Orwell’s “Coming Up for Air,” and “All Art is Propaganda” and the film “Pride.”

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog

February 8, 2016

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bernie or Burned?

Sanders – A Left View

I supported Harold Washington in the election for Chicago's mayor in 1983. I was a ‘global class war’ socialist but understood that Washington had no bourgeois backing at the time when he ran in the Democratic primary. Washington only had a movement, a mostly black movement.  It demonstrated in the streets of downtown Chicago by the thousands on election night when the Democratic Daley machine tried to steal Washington’s victory through a technical move.  That election and a few others show that to influence a movement, it helps to meet it part way.   I still suspect that Washington was assassinated because of his convenient death by ‘heart attack’ while in office.

Harold Washington, former Mayor Chicago
That campaign showed that occasionally mass radical movements start or happen even within bourgeois party processes.  This is because there is no other outlet provided by the system, so mass anger flows into channels already cleverly laid.  Support for Henry Wallace’s presidential primary campaign in 1944 and his independent run in 1948 in the name of the Progressive Party played the same role. Wallace himself was not a socialist but a pro-FDR left-Democrat running against Truman both times.  He was against Jim Crow and the Cold War.  Wallace was supported by most leftists and even some U.S. Trotskyists in the SWP.  The successful Farmer-Labor Party, of left-wing song and legend, first ran in the Republican primaries for several years in Minnesota before becoming an independent organization in 1924. That is significant too. 

Sanders has opened up a political space for a form of socialism in the U.S., on a national scale – something that has not been seen for many years.  He has made the struggle against Wall Street and the 1% his main slogan, taking up where Occupy left off.  He has pushed for single-payer – the first well-known politician who has made that a key issue.  He’s also come out for ending the racist mass incarceration state and legalizing weed, supporting Black Lives Matter and union rights, ending the deportation frenzy and coming out against anti-labor laws like Taft-Hartley.  The most left-wing unions in the country have come out for Sanders, as well as locals bucking their bureaucratic leaderships. 

Henry Wallace, former Progressive Party Candidate
Sander’s foreign policy positions are still those of a junior imperialist, though he has gone to Clinton’s left on the present situations in Iran, Syria and Libya - perhaps under pressure from his base.  As Clinton cleverly pointed out in one debate, he voted to bomb Libya too.  He seems to be moving towards a position that ‘regime change’ is a dangerous strategy.  Sanders had no compunction, nor did liberal (Muslim) hero Keith Ellison, in supporting Israel’s invasion and destruction of Gaza in 2014.  The list of other imperial votes by Sanders is long.  As they say in the U.S., 'politics stops at the waters edge.'  Which means imperialism is a bi-partisan effort.  What is not noted is that an imperial international plan actually impacts the goals of any national movement.  So Sanders cannot implement many of his ideas without confronting the imperial project.

What is key though is that Sanders, as yet, has no real bourgeois backing. The bourgeois media treats him like a pariah instead.  He has not bought into enough corporate garbage.  Unless you think he is a front for a certain ice-cream brand, this is significant.  His idea of a ‘political revolution’ echoes Trotsky, who called for a political revolution against Stalin.  A real ‘political revolution’ changes the leadership of a class state, but does not undermine its social / economic nature.  In Sanders’ meaning, a ‘political revolution’ in the U.S. means gaining more or dominant power for the working class in a capitalist economy – similar to the power of the Social Democratic Party in Sweden and several other countries.  Unfortunately, the leadership and funding of the Democrats is not like the Swedish Social Democracy, but more like moderate Republicans.  Pursuing ‘political revolution’ by staying within the Democratic Party is a strategy bound to fail.

1922 Farmer Labor Party convention in Minneapolis
Sanders is a bit like a modern Father Gapon.  He is telling the Capitalist Czar that the workers and peasants need more.  As Oliver said, "Please sir, can I have some more?"  The question is, as usual, will Sanders’ supporters continue in any sense after this election?  I somewhat doubt it, as I also doubt that Sanders will ultimately win the nomination against the Clinton / Democratic corporate machine.  Sanders himself has not made any attempt to form a political organization yet. And that is also key.  But the possibility is there.  The Green Party under Jill Stein may end up getting my vote in the general election.  However the Green Party is a stagnant organization that can only grow if it unites with other forces on the left.  Merely running candidates year after year on its own is not sufficient.
 
Bernie Sanders in Selma, AL Recently
In this particular primary fight, standing aside is sectarian and abstentionist.  The position taken by Socialist Alternative – giving active critical support to Sanders in the primaries – is the closest position to actually moving the U.S. situation forward.  (Socialist Alternative was birthed in the conditions of European Trotskyism, which is more attuned to mass organization than the U.S. Trotskyist tradition based on Cannon.)  I will be voting for Sanders in the primary, well aware of his pro-imperialist Jr. foreign policy and his many limitations. I will not support Clinton in the general election, nor will many who support Sanders.  Sanders is a sheep-herder, but he is also a pyromaniac – he has a dual role.  We’ve seen movements and initiatives within the Democratic Party before – McCarthy, McGovern, Jackson, Dean, Kucinich – that go nowhere over and over again.  This one, because of economic conditions and Sanders’ social-democratic views, is unique.  It has a chance to result in something more, if only in increased disgust with the Democratic Party and U.S. conventional politics. 

Hjalmar Branting, 1st Soc Dem Swedish PM, 1920
If Sanders is not nominated, which is likely, real socialists should have a very definite plan to offer the Bernie movement.  That is asking them to work for and form an independent mass Labor-Populist party and a united left-front as a spark to win it.  If Sanders’ supporters are actually serious and not just internet warriors, without these two things there will be no political revolution ... let alone the social revolution desired by socialists.  It will leave neo-liberalism in place again under Clinton II or Trump I, as it did with the election of Obama. 

If Sanders is nominated and by some weird chance he wins the general election, I think the only thing that will wait for him is a bullet.  Knowing Amerika, that is.

Red Frog
January 31, 2016

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Cliff-Hanger Notes

“Understanding Class,’ by Erik Olin Wright, 2015

If you missed advanced sociology, this book is for you.  I was trying to find a book that describes the specific nature of the class structure in the U.S. and this book only touches on that.  It made clear that a material problem for revolutionaries in the U.S. is the complexity of the class system, which has many layers even within classes, layers that are also partially permeable.  This is the material reason why working-class consciousness is so weak and fragmented here.  Wright calls this problem that of a “contradictory location within class relations.’ 
Version of a Tear Drop Class Diagram, perhaps a bit dated.

Instead this academic book concentrates on the various sociological theories around class, but from a Marxist point of view.  Wright is a mild-mannered left Social-Democrat from Madison, Wisconsin and takes on various neo-liberal, progressive and down-right reactionary theories on understanding class.  He includes Piketty, Standing and Weber in his theory review, then presents his own.  He makes the quite interesting point that capital will undermine its own long-term profit interests (and is doing so) in the pursuit of complete domination over labor.

Wright’s overall position is to find a ‘socially positive compromise’ within capitalism that will benefit workers the most.  Think Sweden or Germany.  He also attempts to integrate other theories of class into a Marxist paradigm – and I don’t think he fails.  The Marxist position, in Wright’s understanding, is the most systemic and encompassing, but he tries to borrow from other theories that are based on solid evidence.  I’m going to describe each chapter in which Wright challenges in a polite way some more conservative theories on class.  You’ve run into people parroting these ideas, even though they might not know where they come from.

1.      Wright first takes on the grand-daddy of bourgeois sociology – Max Weber.  Essentially Weber did not believe that the working class was exploited under capitalism.  Weber believed that class was exclusively summed up by status - the market skills and background employees brought to their jobs in a complex society. You know, ‘cultural capital.’  In essence, workers charge the bosses ‘skill rents.’  Wright agrees on a lower level that this is true of aspects of class, but points out that Weber’s formulation ignores the overall nature of the economy. Weber believed in a ‘rationalized’ economy which required ‘efficient’ employee functioning.  This would allow economies to survive.  Weber thus endorsed capitalist managers directing all the work of employees and opposed self-management or cooperatives or even co-determination.  By extension unions, work councils, labor, socialist or revolutionary parties - all impinge on Weber’s idea of ‘rationalization.’

Oddly enough, while Weber denounces the ‘political incentives’ that might exist under socialism, he embraces the idea that workers under capital must treat labor as ‘an end in itself’ – another kind of political incentive, i.e. the Protestant work ethic.  Weber does understand class position in the same way as Marx, in its relation to production and influence by materiel forces.  Wright insists that the idea of ‘exploitation’ hovers in the background of Weber’s analysis but this looks dubious. Weber even theorized that slaves were not an exploited class, and if you can’t see that, you can’t see much. 

2.      Next up is Charles Tilly.  Tilly’s jargon-heavy theory is that inequality might affect categories of people by gender, by ethnicity, by nationality, by language, by religion, by age cohort.  But this is only to enable and stabilize exploitation.  Tilly thinks that it is primarily organizations that construct this exploitative inequality, which includes corporations, businesses and government entities.  It is there you will find the various forms of inequality – exploitation, opportunity hoarding, hierarchy, ownership.  These result in categorical inequality, but also self-perpetuating social-Darwinian success for that organization.  Tilly subsumes identity politics into class issues and opposes individualist understandings as ‘micro-level’ approaches to these macro-level problems. 

Wright agrees with much of what he says, as Tilly merges Weberian and Marxist ideas in his theory, but criticizes him for making identity issues into ‘individualist’ issues when they are not. 

      3.   The third sociologist is a guy named Aege Sorensen. Sorensen also embraces an exploitation / economic version of class over the ‘life conditions’ version of class that is the most common.  Wright oddly agrees with Sorensen that you can avoid talking about the labor theory of value when discussing exploitation.  Instead, according to Sorensen, the key to exploitation is ‘rents.’  Now the discussion gets completely ridiculous.  You are thinking Sorensen is going to talk about landlords or banks gouging apartment dwellers or homeowners; or high-class French vineyards and corner restaurants selling their wares for a maximum profit because of their primo real estate location.  Noooo!  Sorensen basically believes that workers charge the bosses exorbitant ‘rents’ for their skills - and so the workers exploit the capitalists.  Yes, you heard it here. 

            Sorensen thinks that unions negotiate ‘solidarity wages’ which gives lower-skill workers a bonus, to the detriment of every one else.  (Has this guy been in any unions?  It is the high-end workers who get the best deal in contracts…)  High minimum wages also gives low-skill people an edge, as does a welfare state.  As a result, all these effects create a ‘rent’ paid by the capitalists and petit-bourgeois to workers, who become ‘an exploiting class.’  Essentially Sorensen turns society on its head.

Wright points out that all of these ‘rents’ are actually mitigations of capitalist and rentier exploitation. Sorensen bases his ideas on a world of ‘perfect competition’ which does not exist.  Additionally, people can be oppressed without being directly exploited – like the unemployed, indigenous people or other excess populations who are not needed for any economic role.  As Wright sardonically says, racists said ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ but the bourgeoisie doesn’t say, ‘the only good worker is a dead worker.’  (Unless they are on strike in South Africa…) 

     4.      Michael Mann is the next up. Mann doesn’t believe that classes exist unless they act ‘for themselves.’  He does away with the concept of the Marxist category of class ‘in itself’ - or even analyzing classes as they exist - unless they form into social forces and class actors.  To Wright, class locations, relations and structures are still important, while Mann thinks that this version of class analysis is only ‘on paper.’  Mann theorizes that only when a class expresses ideological, political, military or economic power does it really count or exist.  Mann then oddly describes the ‘self-action’ of the American middle class / petit-bourgeois in the 20th century – professionals, small business men and corporate managers – and calls them class actors.  Marx said that ‘history was the history of class struggle.’  Mann thinks that this struggle came out of nothing. 

    5.      The next are two theorists, David Grusky and Kim Weeden, who believe that the only way to look at class is through job occupations or what you could generously call ‘micro-classes.’ They have come up with more than 126 job occupations that supposedly explain class society.  Wright puts them in the micro-level sociological camp of Emile Durkheim, and thanks them for their meticulous empirical research.   If you wanted a sociology of class that was limited to lifestyle, taste and social attitudes, their research might be useful.  This is what Sarah Palin understands class to be.  Wright compares them to a level of game theory.  Marxists question ‘what game to play.’  Institutional theorists question ‘what rules to use’ in the already chosen game.  And situational theorists like Grusky/Weeden look at the moves to use within the rules of the fixed game.  As Wright says, “It is the class analysis for the era of triumphant neo-liberalism.”   

    6.     Thomas Piketty is next.  Wright nods to the importance of his massive work on inequality, “Capital.” Wright points out one main disagreement, as others have done, that Piketty does not describe what capital actually is.  Piketty says one of the great sources of inequality is the super-salaries of corporate managers, and calls this ‘labor.’  Yet those wages are not from ‘labor’ but from their power positions running capitalist firms, basically gorging on the firms’ profits.  Or as the jab goes, ‘having their hand in the till, not on the tiller.’  Piketty also confuses home ownership with ‘capital,’ which are two different kinds of assets.  These are examples of Piketty confusing different sources into a generic ‘capital.’

     7.    Next up are two theorists, Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, who argue that class does not exist in the U.S., as ‘social classes are dissolving.’ This in spite of all the empirical evidence to the contrary.  This is a familiar argument made by Republicans and many Democrats, and Wright takes it apart. 

     8.   Next is Guy Standing.  He is the lead theorist of the ‘precariat,’ – the marginally unemployed, migrants and denizens who have few legal rights and educated temp or ‘gig’ workers.  Standing calls all these a separate class from the working class.  Needless to say, Wright easily dispenses with this formulation (along with Standing’s other odd ‘class’ definitions) by showing that the material interests of the precariat and proletariat are close – hence they are not separate classes, but different layers within one class.

Wright thinks for the ‘foreseeable future” (how long is that…) socialism is an impossibility.  So as an alternative he creates various game theory graphs describing ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ social compromises within capitalism.  He promotes union co-determination, cooperatives, ESOPs and union-based ‘solidarity funds,’ while advocating policies to redirect financial investment and for governments to build productive local economies.   In this context, Wright thinks the Swedish/German model of social compromise benefits both capital and the working class the most. 

Wright admits that the years between WWII and the advent of neo-liberalism (1945 to 1975) might be a ‘blip’ in the historical record of capital, but soldiers on anyway.  He also admits that the social-democratic model, even in Europe, is under attack from neo-liberalism and decaying swiftly due to financial and social conditions.  This however does not shake Wright from his political perspective. 

Capital in the 21st Century” by Piketty reviewed in two segments below.  The Precariat” by Standing is also reviewed.  Other valuable books reviewed are: “Annihilation of Caste,” “Understanding Class,” “The Servant Economy,” “Rich People Things,”The Liberal Class,” “In & Out of the Working Class,” “Behind the Kitchen Door” and “Class Lives.”

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 30, 2016

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Trumpolini?

Sketch by Eric Leon Gibbs

The Psychedelic Insurrection

The Long Strange Trip:  Fare Thee Well!

Everything isn't totally political, like the universal of music.

If the recent concerts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead are any indication, they help make the claim that the Dead are the preeminent U.S. rock and roll band of all time.  The San Francisco sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s – steeped in drugs and rebellion – rose above Los Angeles, New York or Chicago as the homeland of the most distinctive and inventive form of rock in that period.  Classic LA rock died with Jim Morrison and limped on with CSNY and the more commercial Eagles; the Velvet Underground were the preeminent New York band of the period and disappeared after a few albums; original Chicago bands like Blood Sweat & Tears, Butterfield and the Electric Flag could not keep up.  Southern-linked bands like Creedence Clearwater and the Allman Brothers went big, but then Creedence collapsed and the Allman’s carried on, but not with the same impact.  Other bands from San Francisco – Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Sly & the Family Stone, Country Joe & the Fish, Quicksilver, It’s a Beautiful Day, Steve Miller, Mother Earth, Santana – did not quite have the staying power or mass appeal.  

Grateful Dead in Haight-Ashbury
Singer songwriters like Dylan and Neil Young were the best of their class; Springsteen is about the only act that can challenge the Dead, but he’s still not there. 

The Dead’s Fare-The-Well concerts around the country this 2015 summer, ending in a three night stand at sold-out Soldier Field in Chicago, were a fitting crescendo.  The Dead and the shadows of its long litany of deceased players rose above all this - carrying its sound and cultural impact through 5 generations.  Playing with them at the Chicago concerts were Trey Anatasio of Phish on lead and Bruce Hornsby on piano, joining original members Bob Weier, Phil Lesh, Bill Kruetzmann and Mickey Hart, along with Jeff Chimenti on the dangerous keyboards.  The ghosts of Jerry Garcia, PigPen, Brent Mydland, Keith Godchaux and Vince Welnick hovered over the concerts. 

Why were they the best?  Exercises like this are probably stupid but nevertheless I’ll give it a try.

Covers:  The Dead were the greatest cover band in the U.S. – doing Dylan, Stones, Beatles, Chuck Berry, and dozens of other roots songs written by others, and making each one their own.  Listen to the Dead do “King Bee” and compare it to the Stones version, and you’ll know who did it better.  They respected their roots, unlike musicians who think everything must come from them alone.

Influences:  The Dead combined influences from blues, folk, blue-grass, country, jazz, Americana and electronic / experimental music into a unique American amalgam, bar none.  Nothing synthetic or sterile about their approach.  They had a repertoire of nearly 700 songs and only one top-40 hit, which made them a decidedly non-pop phenomenon. You rarely hear about the Dead from any corporate source, as they started as a completely 'underground' band whose work was promoted by word of mouth.  They didn't get much promotion except by the formerly underground press like Rolling Stone, and it went on that way for years.

Drugs:  No other band made marijuana and other drugs an accepted part of their shows.  In Chicago 2015 the smoke still billowed.

Visuals:  The Dead were known for their iconographic visuals.  The dancing bears; the skull and roses, the lighting-bolt through the red, white and blue skull; the Jester; dancing turtles; Uncle Sam skeleton and Captain Trips.  They relied on excellent light shows from the first to the last.  The Stone’s tongue symbol pales in comparison. 

Improvisation:  They perfected the improvised and jazz-based ‘jam’ form of rock.  Each concert was similar to a jazz performance in the sense that base songs were many times used as springboards for something else.  Songs flowed into each other and transitions between songs were many times improvised.  They put the ‘psych’ in psychedelic. 

Dancing:  Most Dead concerts had people dancing for hours, like some St. Vitus ceremony.   The concerts were the equivalent of a roots-based ‘rave’ that went closer to public ecstasy than almost any other band could muster. 

Live performances:  The most prolific band in history, playing more concerts than any other.  Ultimately their audiences were full of people of all ages and classes.  The Grateful Dead itself played 2,318 concerts.  The Dead, Further, Phil Lesh & Friends, Dead & Company, The Other Ones, Ratdog, Rhythm Devils and other spin-off bands have played many more.  Garcia himself had several bands like Old & In the Way.  As a result they have the most recorded concerts of any group of musicians, as chronicled by “Dick’s Picks” and many others.  They had the most loyal live following of any rock band.  Nearly 25 million people have seen their shows.

Technical:  The Dead were the first rock band to control the recording of a studio album, their second - “Anthem of the Sun.”  Owsley Stanley, of LSD fame, designed their ‘wall of sound’ which linked every instrument to around 5 to 10 speakers.  It was so massive they eventually stopped touring with it.  Sound was always important to the Dead – they wanted it as close to perfect as they could get. 

Industry innovations:  They were the first band to try to start their own label and to sell tickets to their own shows, to cut out the profiteering middle-men.  They were, of course, a money-making machine if they toured, but played many benefits too.  They had a huge crew that were not just minions and took fan outreach seriously. They were the first band to allow taping by the audience.  They were fluid and welcoming and so they invited many people to be part of the band – for a long period or just a few shows.  Notable members or players were Donna Godchaux, Bruce Hornsby, Warren Haynes, Joan Osborne and Branford Marsalis, but many others came on-stage.  

Cultural:  They were a living link between the Beats like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Kesey and the hippies.  Their song “Cassidy” celebrates Neal Cassidy, who drove the bus named Further in the book “On the Road.”   They attempted to continue this legacy until the end, though members like Bob Weir became millionaires in the process.  Nor were they spot-light hogs.  The had the sense to walk away from Altamont because they could tell it was a bad place to be in. 

In a way they were part of a ‘cultural revolution’ that continues to this day.  Given right-wingers still denigrate ‘hippies,’ as do centrists and liberals, those 50 years are proof of a very powerful cultural thrust that hasn’t stopped yet.

Be Kind & Fare Thee Well

Red Frog
January 26, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

Behavior Modification

“The Happiness Industry – How the Government and Big Business Sold Us on Well-Being,” by William Davies, 2015

How can anyone be against ‘happiness’?  Davies, a British sociologist, carefully explains that actual happiness is not the issue – it is the form of capitalist ‘happiness’ engineered through corporate HR departments, large Internet companies, government surveillance or programs and academic research projects.  In essence much of the present ‘happiness’ industry is a behavior modification program and pseudo-science designed to get people to better adapt to present circumstances, no matter what those circumstances may be.  Its real purpose is to produce more productive workers and better shoppers and actually inhibits actual happiness. 

Early quote posted on Athenian slave quarters.
Capital early on began to understand that workers could be worn out by work. (Duh!) Burnout and fatigue are obvious results of especially intense work, and they realized they had to manage their employee’s psychology to maintain productivity.  As the profit economy in advanced capitalist countries relied more and more on direct exploitation of labor in the ‘service’ and intellectual property parts of the economy, the emotional and psychological state of workers became even more important.  An alienated, distant worker became a profit problem. Enter the Happiness Industry!  Does your firm have a ‘happiness officer’ yet?

While this may hint at another form of socialized and democratic functioning at work, instead it is taken in the other direction.  To Davies, the methods that developed are essentially false solutions to a social problem. As he says, “In many ways, happiness science is ‘critique turned inwards,’ despite all the appeals by positive psychologists to ‘notice’ the world around us.”

If you were expecting a more current look at this issue, similar to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright Sided,” this is not it.  A third of the book is a description and critique of the history of utilitarianism, psychology and the origins of behaviorism which led up to the present moment.  He also spends time looking at the development of the neo-conservative Chicago School and its’ all encompassing ‘price theory’ and hatred of any government policy.  All of these are essentially ideological products coming out of the development of capitalist society, from Jeremy Bentham in 1766 to the present.  Out of this perspective came the neo-liberal terms ‘human capital’ and ‘cultural capital’ – as if our character and knowledge are now quantifiable commodities. 

Figures covered by Davies are Bentham, the utilitarian who first postulated that ‘pleasure’ and the avoidance of ‘pain’ were the goals of human beings;  William Jevons, whose understanding of the mind was as a mechanical balancing act rationally weighing value; John Watson, who thought the mind was nothing but observable behavior; Frederick Winslow Taylor, who made the work flow more efficient, but did not touch psychology; Hans Selye, who thought all emotions had a discoverable biological form in the body and Jacob Moreno, who developed the method of social and power linkages through socio-metrics. 

Many of the buzz words floating around today come up.  Like the ubiquitous corporate ‘wellness’ programs that seek to get employees to stop smoking, loose weight, eat healthy, limit drinking or drug use.  They are designed to push themselves into the private and social life of workers.  The goal is to produce better workers for higher profit of course, but infractions are already being monetarized – such as higher rates for smokers. Some workers are being threatened with termination for not cooperating with wellness programs.  Some businesses want to submit workers to a gene test before hiring, to confirm 'wellness.' 

Davies takes direct pokes at ‘Davos Buddhism,’ mindfulness programs directed at getting more productivity out of top executives and relieving stress.  Or its equivalent for ordinary people – mindfulness, yoga and meditation that require a position of semi-mystical individualist quietism in the face of social and economic turbulence.  He describes how the present data mining through Facebook, Twitter, Fitbit, Google and many other programs are attempts to gain ‘scientific’ data to be used by powerful corporations or academics to manipulate behavior – to peer inside the population.  Or the academics working with the military or corporations who seek to better quantify an elusive thing like ‘happiness.’  They think if you can scientifically measure it through various forms of data, especially bypassing input from the subject, you can understand it and use that knowledge.  A housing and shopping complex in New York is now being built in which all the residents will be monitored on many levels – a ‘smart town’ and ultimate lab-rat cage. 

The industry thinks happiness can be monitored through purchases and so Davies looks at advertising’s interest in customer surveys as they were originally undertaken by the J. Walter Thompson agency.  He shows how ‘brain’ science is now a multi-billion dollar government project, attempting to locate all ideas and emotions in one location in the brain – a location that can then be stimulated.  Or ‘social entrepreneurship,’ which hints at another relation to profit, but is then distorted in this economy into a ‘hip’ sales gimmick. 

Davies takes issue with the various forms of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders”(DSM) – the dictionary of psychological ailments.  The DSM has over-medicalized nearly every single emotional issue.  One version, #3, was dominated by behaviorists from St. Louis who came up with many new diagnoses for which private health plans and drug manufacturers could then use to market products.  Depression, which has been shown to have a direct connection to social issues in a person’s life like poverty, unemployment, bad workplaces and ethnic oppression - is instead treated by expensive drugs like Prozac.  Prozac is like the ‘Soma’ of our Brave New America.

The worst form of psychological abuse is the recommendations by some happiness gurus that people with ‘negative’ thoughts be shunned or fired from firms.   What is ‘negative’ is a matter of debate.  Davies sees that classifying all forms of negativity as depression or unhappiness “is the most pernicious of the political consequences of utilitarianism.”

Later quote posted on U.S. work bulletin boards.
Davies is not a Marxist, but is somewhat anti-capitalist and supports efforts at improving the work place through cooperatives, where workers make decisions in their own work lives.  Cooperatives (and non-profits) have actually been shown to have better ‘happiness’ levels than other kinds of businesses because workers are not as alienated.  Alienation was a topic Marx highlighted because he understood that most workers had no control over the products, business or methods of work at their workplaces due to the basically dictatorial control of the capitalist. 

Davies thinks a society that believes in cooperation, altruism and potlatch is the cure for unhappiness, not the various attempts to control human behavior that are coming out of the corporate interest in ‘happiness.’  As the ‘community psychology’ movement has discovered, humanity has survived and been psychologically healthy not because of individualism and war, but because of cooperation.  And that seems to be his message too. 

Davies does not address the existential question of whether ‘happiness’ is even possible or desirable at all times.  Ultimately, the human condition does not argue so.  Evidently that is for the philosophers, not the sociologists, to discuss.

Prior books on similar topics: “Bright Sided,” by Barbara Ehrenreich; “The University in Chains,” “Propaganda,” about the start of modern advertising; and “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.”

MLK died for our sins...

Craig made me buy this at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 18, 2016

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Losers Win

"The Damnificados,” by JJ Amaworo Wilson, 2016

The damned have come to life.  Led by an imp cripple who speaks five languages and his daring brother who speaks one.  2000 squatters in the sky, scraping 60 stories.  Occupying an abandoned tower, so-called 'private property.'  Guarded by the Chinaman, a Japanese sumo son.  All standing against the Torres terrorists who breathe all the sins of capital – military, political and economic.  Living in a land of many languages and cultures, not just one. Our world.  To hell with your ‘sense of place.’
 
The Real Tower of David in Caracas
Sky above them, garbage below.  Rottweiler Avenue or Boondoggle Street.  Humor in the street names of ghettos and shanty-towns and favelas and garbage villas, bursting full of peddlers and children.  The working poor in a ruined world – dystopic broken factories, empty zoos, toxic buildings.  Surrounded by wastelands of emptiness riven by train tracks and road warrior ruts. 

A pack of heroic wolves, warning rats and a giant sinkhole save the day.  Assassination fails.  Nature results in dead soldiers - a rare result.  The people’s utopia survives in a way.  It is the end of this trash war. 

Dostoevsky’s damned, Babel’s Tower, the Two-Headed gorgon, Slum-Dog Millionaire, the stone heads of Easter Island, David & Goliath, The Flood and the tall Ark, Gilgamesh, Golgotha  – all resonate.  Magical realism, but better than magic, better than Marquez.  An abandoned skyscraper, maybe in Caracas, Venezuela, but perhaps in every other city in the world.  The homeless make this their home. 

A great book, with flaws.  It reflects the outlook of a world citizen.  Wilson was born in Germany, having a Nigerian mother, an English father, grew up in the UK.  Lived in Egypt, Columbia, Lesotho, Italy and the U.S.

The damnificados are useless as a military force.  Civilians with brooms and outdated weapons, afraid and untrained.  No match for real killers.  They have not been brain-washed that way. Would nature or animals really come to their aid, like the trees or eagles from ‘Lord of the Rings?’     Does this kind of thing really happen?  Only in magic.

Why does the cripple get healed after being dunked in the waters of the dirty (maybe Ganges) river in a miracle of religious baptism?  The religious hovers in the background, certainly.

Why do progressives write fantasies or science fiction or magic reality?  Why the remove from the present?  It is obvious that their books really relate to present society.    Do they have to aestheticize their angle?  Or make it more presently consumable.  Relatedly readable.  More lyrical and more literary.  More distant, less blunt?

After all, the real Tower of David in Caracas was partly made possible by a social movement of millions strong.

Nevertheless, a great read.  Pick it up.

Other progressive fantasy/science fiction reviewed below:  Bisson: “Fire on the Mountain,” Atwood: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Le Guin:“The Dispossessed,”  Dick:  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Spinrad:  Raising Hell”, "Cloud Atlas," and Abbey: “Good News.”   

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 16, 2016

Monday, January 11, 2016

And even today, we still use the phrase 'Land-Lord.'

"Jimmy’s Hall,” a film by Ken Loach, 2014

Loach is one of the best left-wing filmmakers in the world and this film is an undiscovered gem, at least in the U.S.   It tells the true story of James Gralton, a member of one of the Revolutionary Workers Groups (RWG) in Ireland, who returns to Ireland in 1932 from the U.S. after having been deported for leading anti-eviction actions.

James Gralton Poster
Gralton returns to his mother’s farm in a rural area, County Leitrim, and goes about revitalizing a rural meeting hall near the farm.  This hall is based on the real Pearse-Connolly hall in Effernagh.  Leitrim is in the north of Ireland, next to Northern Ireland itself.  Loach carefully weaves a story of cultural work and social struggle into one.  This is rare, as most people think that politics and culture are in two distinct boxes.  Gralton proves otherwise.  The majority of the community gets together to rebuild the hall, which has fallen into disuse.  They begin holding classes in poetry, in boxing, in drawing, in Irish dancing – and even jazz dancing.  Community dances are held with bands, as this hall seems to be the only large place that people can meet.

The dead hand of the Irish Catholic Church is immediately evident, as the local priest starts telling people not to go to the hall, as he insists only the Church can handle education.  He threatens them with other-worldly condemnation and inveighs against ‘modern’ jazz and dancing.  The film starts to look like an Irish version of “Footloose.”  Well, it gets darker than that.  This is Ireland, after all. The folks at the hall try to figure out a way to win over the priest by putting him on their ‘Board.’  The priest says yes, but only if they put the deed in the name of the Church.  No way. 

A young girl is whipped by her father for continuing to visit the hall.  Others are intimidated from coming to the hall.  Then leaders of the RWG, which in 1933 helped form the Irish Communist Party, visit Jimmy to tell him about an eviction.  A large family has been thrown out of their hovel by the local landlords.  The RWG thinks that the country – in the midst of the Depression – is ready to move against evictions.  They want Gralton, who has a name, to make a speech and spark that movement.  They point out that the nationalist IRA is noncommittal.  Jimmy’s local co-thinkers get together to decide if he should make the speech, as they know the repercussions.  Dancing and jazz is one thing, but fighting evictions is a whole ‘nother level in Ireland. 

A classic confrontation ensues.  The majority of people in the village and surrounding areas march back to the abandoned house with the family, with Jimmy and his buddies in the lead.  Standing against them is the priest, the landlords & rich people, and the police – the whole local ruling elite.  Guns are drawn on both sides – and the local elite backs down, for now.  Jimmy makes the speech and things start to come apart.

The hall is burnt at night.  Jimmy is arrested, escapes with help, but is ultimately caught and condemned to being deported again without trial.  His love affair with a local women is once again sundered.  And the children of this locality no longer have someone who can help them get beyond daily prayers.

What Remains of the Hall after being Burned.
The RWG were supporters of Irish socialists like James Connolly and James Larkin. 
Even after the formal independence of the south in 1921, which was won by an IRA guerrilla war against Britain lasting 3 years, struggle continued.  This film makes the obvious point that the Irish national struggle against the landowners was not over.  The landlords were both Irish and English. In other words it was all along both a national and a class fight.  So in essence this ‘revolution,’ like all others, is permanent – i.e. it can break the bounds of any stages that are decreed by a reformist group like the IRA, which had led the national struggle, or the later Irish CP itself.

Other films by Ken Loach that are worth watching concerning the working class or politics:  Land & Freedom,” about the Spanish Civil war; “Riff Raff,” “My Name is Joe,” “Bread & Roses,” (about the L.A. janitors movement) “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” (about Irish liberation struggle…), “Family Life,” and “The Navigators.”

Red Frog
January 11, 2016

Friday, January 8, 2016

Nazis in Scandinavia

“Redbreast – A Harry Hole Novel,” by Jo Nesbǿ, 2000

Literary conventions seem to cross boarders, as do topics.  Very few detective novels in the U.S. involve fascists, given the generally tired, crime-crazy and non-political slant of most of the U.S. genre.  But in Scandinavia, for clear reasons, Nazis are popular in fiction.  Norway was dominated by a pro-German Quisling government throughout World War II and the scars still remain. The term ‘quisling’ has become a synonym for ‘traitor’ after all.  Sweden maintained ‘neutrality’ during the war, but that meant that pro-fascist elements were rife in the country among the upper classes, while Sweden also became a refuge for all of Denmark’s Jews.  The ‘neutral’ Swedes still let the Wehrmacht use Sweden as a jumping off point for the German invasion of the USSR in 1941.  1918 saw a class-based civil war in Finland, which was drowned in blood by Finnish Whites and German troops, who also put down their own insurrection in Germany a year later.   Finland officially allied with Germany during World War II and fought the Soviets twice – the first during the ‘Winter War’when Stalin questionably decided to invade Finland and annex it.  When eventual peace was declared, Finland lost Karelia to the USSR. 

The Robin - for some reason.
So fascism is not an abstract or fuzzy notion in Scandinavia, as it is in the U.S., where most people couldn’t identify a real fascist for the life of them.  Recent right-wing developments in Scandinavia show the links.

This book might be seen as a forerunner to the Stieg Larsson Millennium series.  That series started in 2005 with ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ but was written before that, perhaps in 2002.  The latter featured rich Swedish fascists who murdered women on a regular basis across Sweden.  Larsson himself was a real leftist journalist, dying in 2004.  Larsson created a team of an older male journalist and a young, kick-ass female punk skilled in technology and complete commitment.  Lisbeth Salander, a rape survivor, became a world-wide female action heroine in the process.   

Nesbǿ is a Norwegian who instead follows the convention of the intelligent but troubled male detective, who then becomes his stock character in several books.  Hole drinks too much, gets into fights easily, defies authority, but is also the best detective on the Oslo force - of course. 

In Nesbǿ’s book there are no heroines, just one police female, a close friend of Hole’s, who is murdered by a mysterious person.  Hole follows the traces of a large sniper rifle, a Märklin, which turns up in Sweden during a series of murders of former Norwegians who fought with the Germans.  This is all preceding a visit by Swedish royalty.  Early on Hole shoots someone he thinks is an assassin gunning for the U.S. president, only to find out it is a U.S. secret service agent who was not where they were supposed to be.  He is promoted for his alert role here - a bit of humor at the expense of the Americans.  Hole misses a very right-wing gunrunner who turns out to be a detective on Hole’s own force, and who is also a killer.  So he’s not perfect. 

The story revolves around a group of young Norwegian Nazi punks who link up with an older Norwegian fascist who fought on the Russian front in World War II, besieging Leningrad.  One of these older soldiers is killing a whole slew of people who fought ‘for Norway’ on the front.  Hole tracks the very expensive and accurate Märklin rifle from South Africa (of course) to this individual, who oddly enough has a ‘split personality’ and is that much harder to identify because of it. This is an unnecessary fictional ‘out’ that really weakens the story, making it more unbelievable.

Hole eventually nails the assassin, but after you are witness to the odd world of former collaborators and skinhead violence.  During the war, most Norwegians waited to see which side would win before they declared for a side.  Very few were anti-Quisling partisans.  Instead after the war the ‘neutral’ Norwegians pretend to have always been anti-Quisling, and so a deep social lie develops – much as it did in West Germany, Vichy France, Finland, Italy, Spain and other western countries where sections of the population collaborated with the Nazis or were passive bystanders during World War II.  Nesbǿ pokes fun at this lie. 

Nesbǿ is rated as one of the top detective fiction writers in Europe and he’s worth a read, though Larsson seems to have done a more progressive take on the genre.

Other reviews of genre cop stories below: 'Sycamore Row,' 'Gone Girl,' 'Prudence Can't Swim,' and 'The Meta-Meaning of Ridiculous Cop Shows.'

Red Frog
January 8, 2016

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Homocene Epoch

“The Sixth Extinction – an Unnatural History,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, 2015

Spreading like ants, humans have occupied the whole world, and in the process, they have changed it.  This most successful species – up to this point – is in the process of so altering the world as to endanger all other life on the planet, and itself in the bargain.  Kolbert has taken a journalistic tour of this ‘sixth’ extinction in the new ‘anthropocene’ age, traveling across the globe to bring these stories to life.  Short on solutions or even a clearer identification of the problem, she hints that we need some kind of ‘change.’  But given writers for the New Yorker magazine are not in the habit of revolutionary or even disruptive solutions, that is to be expected.

The Red Frog. Amphibians - the most endangered species.
Amphibians are the most endangered class of animals, crashing across the globe.  According to Kolbert, one-third of all corals, freshwater mollusks, saltwater sharks and rays; a quarter of all mammals; a fifth of all reptiles; a sixth of all birds are headed for oblivion too.  Many insects and other kinds of life- too many to count - are also on the list.  This exceeds the normal ‘background extinction rate’ by many times, due to the unprecedented high speed of environmental change brought on by humans and human-induced climate change.   

Kolbert begins her tour in central Panama, examining the disappearance of amphibians like the golden frog.  She identifies the problem as the spread of a fungus, chrytid, on frog skin, which eventually gives frogs a heart attack.  She hints that the problem is that this fungus has been transported around the world by humans, thus reducing the ocean barriers which separate continents to nothing.  This has been called a ‘new Pangaea’ by scientists – Pangaea being the original single continent before the advent of continental drift.  We now have a virtual Pangaea. After a visit to upstate New York, Kolbert discovers that "white nose" disease as destroyed bat populations across the world - also transmitted quickly across continents by humans, cargo ships and airplanes.  According to Kolbert, there are now more 'invasive' species than native species.

Kobert includes a history of the idea of animal or plant ‘extinction,’ which was finally theorized by Jean Leopold Cuvier in 1796, after examining mastodon bones from Kentucky.  (Cuvier was also a racist who believed black people to be a 'missing link' to apes. He did not know that humans in Europe interbred with Neaderthals, but Africans never did.)  Before then no one thought a species could go extinct.  Darwin then wrote in “Origin of the Species’ about human-caused extinction, as he had observed it from the destruction of the Gallapagos tortoise by ship-board hunters.

It wasn’t until Walter Alvarez in 1980 that this theory was supplemented - that change (and by correlation, extinction) was not always slow and ‘gradual’ (per Darwin and Cuvier) but could happen suddenly.  This happened after Alvarez studied marine ‘ammonites’ in a strata in Gubbio, Italy, then later subjected the strata to chemical analysis, which showed that meteorite iridium debris in the strata was off the charts.  He finally located a massive meteor crater on the coast of Yucatan.  This is what most scientists now think caused the dinosaur extinction after the Cretaceous period.  Kolbert points out that 3.5 of the previous 5 mass extinctions were caused by rapid climate change – once by glaciation, 2.5 times by global warming - and the human-induced one now going on would be the 4th related to climate change.  The animals had little time to adapt.  These discoveries conform with the dialectical property of nature – that quantity eventually turns into quality.  Nature is not static, circular or always gradual.   

Kolbert visits Iceland to look at the place where the last auk, a large, slow moving penguin-like seabird, was killed for food in 1821.  Kolbert notes that 6,000 years ago, the ‘mega-fauna’ extinction’ occurred, which correlated to the spread of hunter-gatherer humans to every continent.  At that point, massive animals like mammoths, mastodons and sloths were slaughtered for meat and disappeared.  Today large mammals like lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos and hippos are on the way out too. So human-induced change started long before the present onslaught of global warming.

She goes to Italy and to a tiny island off New Zealand to look at ocean acidification.  She examines a methane leak in the sea floor near Naples which indicates that increasing acidification will kill most everything in the seas, especially shellfish.  The pH level of the oceans is changing due to the absorption of carbon dioxide, as ocean acidification is the nasty watery cousin of global warming.  A scientist studying ‘Biosphere 2” discovered ocean acidification by looking at the carbon-heavy, acidic water at Biosphere 2.  Coral cover in the Great Barrier Reef has already declined by 50%, which endangers all marine life that live on reefs. 

Kolbert points to the role of human-run fertilizer plants, river dams, agriculture and cities, fisheries, fresh water usage and carbon changes in the atmosphere in changing the world’s chemistry and biology.  The ‘anthropocene’ age is upon us – a name that has not been officially declared but will soon be.  ‘Anthro’ is Greek for human.  As usual ahead of the curve, Soviet scientists in the 1960s first used the term.  If things don’t change, by 2050 when our children will still be alive – and by 2100, when their children will still be alive – the present environment will be at two certain points of collapse. 

Kolbert travels to the Amazon and Peru to look at isolated tree projects, which measure the movement of tree species up slopes or the number of animals living in them.  The Amazon has 1,000s of tree species, more than anywhere else on the globe, which is common in areas along the Equator.  Northern latitudes in Canada only have about 20 trees, while areas in between slowly increase.  The Amazon and Peruvian tests reveal that both trees and animal varieties are declining even there. 

Kolbert has praise for zoos or scientists studying these trends, or trying to preserve dying species.  In the process she sometimes misses the forest for the trees.  At one point she praises scientists for convincing the Brazilian government to set aside land for study – even though the Brazilian government has decreed that the other 50% of the Amazonian land should become grazing or agricultural land!  She knows – kind of – that efforts to preserve a single species like the California condor or the Sumatran rhino miss the point if the animal die-off is affecting thousands and millions of species.  She ignores the fact that getting animals for zoo displays disrupts small wild populations, leading to premature death, and helps lead to extinction.  Meat eating, which seems to play a large role in the death of animals, is not mentioned.  In short, she is a middle-class environmentalist who endorses all the Big Green organizations.  This book describes the dead body on the sidewalk, not who shot them or what to do about other shootings. 

Naomi Klein, in her book “This Changes Everything,” has a better tack on the issue, directly pointing at capitalism as the main culprit behind global warming, ocean acidification and species extinction.  While Klein thinks capital can be tamed and controlled, eco-socialists think that it won’t happen, nor is there time to expect it to happen.  Only a revolutionary change in society, from the ground-up, leading beyond small revolutionary groups, Occupy or Black Lives Matter organizations will work.  A mass Populist-Labor movement that extends across the globe is the only force that can ultimately change this situation.

This Change Everything,” reviewed below.  Many books on environmental issues are also reviewed below, including “Animal Planet,” “Born Under a Bad Sky,” “Collapse,” “Ecological Revolution,” “Gaia,” “Garbage Land,”Green is the New Red,” “The Party’s Over” and “Tar Sands.”

And I bought it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog
January 3, 2016