Monday, August 29, 2016

The Propaganda Model Explains A Lot

Turning Off NPR (National Government Radio)

I haven’t watched the U.S. network news for years. Occasionally I stumble back across Lester Holt or one of the other stuffed shirts giving me the totally predictable and realize nothing has changed.  But I’ve listened to National Public Radio, and its Minnesota affiliate, MPR.  Now I find myself more and more turning it off.  It is really National Government Radio (“NGR”) but tries to convince some listeners to pay for it.  A very small sliver actually funds it.  Very clever, that, pretending to be the ‘people’s station!’  Only 16% of the money comes from government funds and a smaller amount from listeners.  Most of the money is from the ubiquitous foundations, grants, investments, sponsorships and station programming fees.  I.E.  brought to you by businesses – corporate executives of whom also sit on the Board of Directors.  It is not actually ‘public’ by any estimate.

NGR is the soothing version of propaganda.  It’s like warm milk, if you like that kind of thing – full of bovine antibiotics and growth hormones, fed on corn instead of grasses – but hoping you don’t notice.  Dulcet tones, reasonable personas, familiar voices, low-key propaganda.  The same vanilla stable of ‘reporters’ and commentators fill the mics year after year.  I almost can’t tell them apart.  Scott Simon is a name that comes to mind – Mr. Smooth, a friendly light-weight who proclaimed after 9/11 that even pacifists must support ‘the war on terror.’  Sylvia Poggioli – someone whose mission it was to report everything the Pope did – and not much more.  She is a far cry from her anti-fascist father, and that must be what happens when you go to Harvard.  Cokie Roberts, a neo-liberal commentator who slides between ABC News, “This Week With George Stephanopoulos” and NPR with ease.  She is the daughter of Hale Boggs, a Louisiana Democrat.  Shields & Brooks, the non-dynamic duo being paraded as the limits of acceptable opinion on NGR and on TV’s Public Broadcasting System (also known as the “Government Broadcasting System (GBS).”  You are allowed two parties and two views, according to NGR. Commentators from every corporate think tank in Washington are a regular feature, from the Brookings Institution on down.  As any review of ‘think tanks’ shows, nearly all of them are in the pocket of some powerful business interest. 
Whether it is the need for ‘no fly zones’ in Syria (getting ready for Hillary!), the evilness of Russia and China, the ‘stupid’ people who voted for Brexit, avoiding Bernie Sanders or just about any government position you can name, you know where they stand, now and in the future.

NGR was notorious for its support for the oil wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, and still toes every single government position, in spite of what its own reporters sometimes dig up. Coverage of any opposition to Israeli invasions of Gaza is limited to short interviews with PLO figures, or a small ‘personal interest’ story, all to ‘balance’ their real position.  They banned the word ‘torture’ when referring to Bush’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ – something only U.S. networks did.  They advertise themselves as presenting ‘only the facts’ to dupe listeners into a pretense of ‘objectivity,’ but as anyone who has studied journalism know, no outlet can claim real objectivity, least of all these pretenders.  The cultural coverage seems to be part of the ‘fluff’ designed to hide their political positions, even though its middle-brow and vapid content can be painful on its own.  Their early morning book sessions seem designed to dig up literature that is as entertaining and marginal as possible.

NGR (and the GBS) are the prime propaganda vehicles aimed at liberals.  After a while, the only way to handle NGR is with satire.  “Mourning Edition” and “Some Things Considered” are their flagships.  Some of the most dreadful programs now?  Christa Tippit wrecking early Sunday mornings with her ersatz ‘thoughtful’ religiosity, hoping liberals can be lured back into the pews.  “The Splendid Table” with Lynne Rosetto Kasper, an upscale glutton’s guide to cooking and obsessing over food too much; “The Puzzle Master” with Will Short – needlessly thoughtful NY Times puzzles, for those of you who don’t live in Manhattan; “The Dinner Download,” trivial shit Millennials can talk about when they have nothing to say at a party.   It all screams ‘white middle class’ to the point of irrelevance. 

Shows like ‘On the Media” and “Planet Money” occasionally ask on-point questions, but they never really nail the cow.  The propaganda view of U.S. media or capitalism are not mentioned by either – though both hover in the backgrounds like unmentionable ghosts.  Now that “Car Talk” is gone, and the post-Lutheran Lutheran and creaky singer Garrison Keillor edging into the night, perhaps we can see NGR for what it really is -  warm, but poisoned, milk.  So do this experiment.  Every time you hear some right-wing, faux ‘centrist’ commentary on this station, turn the radio off.  Wait 5 or 10 minutes, turn it back on again. Pretty soon you won’t be listening much.

Red Frog
August 29, 2016

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Name the Twin Cities Factories - Come to the Author Talk

Stinson Blvd Honewell, SE Mpls
Ford Plant, Highland Park, St. Paul
Site of 1934 Shootings, north warehouse district, Mpls
Strutwear Knitting, East Downtown, Mpls
Hiawatha Metalcraft, Seward Mpls
Former Ford & Honewell Plant, downtown NW Mpls
Former Jeune Lune and Warehouse, Warehouse District Mpls
Power plant, downtown northwest Mpls
Metalmatic, Mpls along the river
Power Plant along the river, Mpls
ADM Mill, Longfellow Mpls
ADM Mill - Longfellow, Mpls
Successful Author Event

Sunday, August 14, 2016

“16 Tons and What Do You Get?”

“White Trash – the 400 Year History of Class in America,” by Nancy Isenberg, 2016

This book has been on the NYT best seller list for weeks, which shows that the idea of class is no longer taboo in the U.S.  The real ideological battle right now is between identity politics and class politics.  This book is a large weight on the class side of the equation. 

It lambastes the upper class conservative and liberal disdain for the lowest strata of the white working-class, called by the last acceptable insult - ‘white trash.’  Isenberg here refers to this layer as generically ‘poor’ and rarely points out that low-paid white workers actually have to earn a living.  Over these 400 years Isenberg hints that they have been indentured servants, hunters, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, convict labor, small farmers, general laborers, textile workers, migrant laborers, slaughterhouse and construction workers, even illegal alcohol producers.  Most of her textual pictures in this book consist of drunks sitting around shacks doing nothing – having no economic role at all.  These pictures come from the ruling elite of the day, not from the populists.

Every suburbanite's nightmare
Ultimately this study is a political and cultural one.  It is not filled with statistics or economics.  Isenberg’s idea of class is based on income and wealth, not the economic role people play.  As such, she seems to divorce this ‘underclass’ from the rest of the working class.  Isenberg understands that both liberals and conservatives do not want a unity of black, Latino and white workers in the U.S., which is the cause for their focus on ethnic ‘identity’ instead.  Being ‘white trash’ even became a cultural identity in the 1980s, conforming to the times.    

She has compiled, I think, the longest list of insulting terms for this strata of any historian, from the old and arcane to the recent.  Scourings, waste-people, mudsills, lubbers, squatters, swamp dwellers, bog-trotters, clay-eaters, scalawags, tackies, crackers, mongrels, hillbillies, white niggers, rednecks, trailer trash - white trash.  Or as one theorist put it, the “reserve army of the unemployed.’  You get the idea.  The problem is that this barrage of invective does not have much of a response in her text, so you start to believe it.  She cites the first use of the term ‘redneck’ in the late 1800s based on its usage by right-populist politicians, not from the 1920s coal field wars on Blair Mountain when radical coal miners wore red kerchiefs around their necks. 

Isenberg is relentless in her focus on this working-class strata, showing how it closely intersects with ‘racial’ ethnicity and especially the conditions in the rural U.S. south.  As she puts it:  “The Civil War was a struggle to shore up both a racial and a class hierarchy.”  The planters were afraid that an end to slavery would also impel landless whites to rise up.  In the Civil War non-slave owning whites were dragooned into fighting for the slave-owners and planters … until they deserted or were killed.   Union generals and ‘Red’ Republicans also understood the class nature of the war.  Isenberg points out that these 'waste' white people mostly owned no land - so like black slaves and freedman, they had no power, no money, no education, no nothin’.  If they did own land, it was unproductive – sandy, rocky or in the hills.

After the Civil War, ‘white trash’ were still treated almost as poorly by the Southern aristocracy and businessmen as were the victims of Jim Crow – no education, no land, no real wages, no respect.  The south was studied by Howard Odum later during the 1930s and he concluded this about sectionalism’s destructive legacy: “The straitjacket of ‘states rights’ has suffocated southern progress long enough.” As Isenberg puts it, the south had squandered land to erosion; it tolerated poverty and illiteracy; it had little technological training or even basic services.  Much of this continues to this day.

Ultimately Isenberg shows the passivity and docility of white workers in the South has deep historical roots.  However Isenberg ignores any labor struggles in which white workers in textile mills or lumber camps or mines united and fought against the capitalists - in the south or in the north.  There are many examples during the progressive period around the turn of the century and again in the 1930s.  This lack paints ‘white trash’ as hopeless and again emphasizes that this is a political study centering on views ‘from the top.’

Isenberg paints a cultural and political history that exposes the class snobbery of our more progressive ‘founders’ – Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Adams and even Andrew Jackson.  Harriet Beecher Stowe and Thoreau also held hostile opinions about ‘poor’ whites.  She clearly shows how the British class and colonial system permanently stamped the U.S. and especially the South – something that the U.S. still retains, like a permanent birthmark.  Davy Crockett, who became a politician, stands out as one of the few people to stand up for the landless and forgotten folks, as did the “Free Soil” party that preceded the Republicans.   

She delves into the later eugenics movement, which was not just directed against black ‘rednecks,’ but principally aimed at ‘slatternly’ white women who couldn’t stop having babies.  The Supreme Court ‘Buck v Bell’ ruling allowed 4 southern states to pass sterilization laws.  As she puts its:  “The major target of the eugenicists was the poor white woman.” Marriage, kinship, pedigree and lineage were thought to determine a person’s class – an idea from Britain which continued strongly into the 1920s.  Humans were seen as the same as horses – subject to ‘breeding.’  This view saw class as genetic hereditary, not based on economics or capitalism at all. 

Isenberg covers the cultural scene of our recent memory, from Elvis to ‘good ‘ol boys’ LBJ and Carter and “Billy Beer;” Tammy Faye Baker and Dolly Parton; ‘Elvis’ Clinton and Wasilla’s Sarah Palin and now, Duck Dynasty.  Everything from redneck chic to redneck stupid.  This is one of the weakest parts of the book, as little new information is added, especially for people who lived through this period.

Occasionally Isenberg looks into the background of events or culture that impacted the American view of lowly-paid white workers.  The villains in “To Kill a Mockingbird?”  They were the white trash Ewells, though Harper Lee wrote that they picked through the town dump and had no indoor plumbing. This is something not shown in the film, allowing them to appear even more awful.  Another is the book and film “Deliverance” by James Dickey, the son of rich north Georgia landowners.  In once scene a deformed young albino boy ominously plays banjo, bringing out all the fear and loathing of suburban whites. The actor who played the boy was pulled out of high-school and paid almost nothing.  A boy then, that man today works at Wal-Mart for very little pay, and has for many years.  

An American cultural/political follow-up to Piketty's work on class, "Capital," "White Trash" puts another nail in the coffin of identity politics.

Prior reviews on these subjects:  Slavery By Any Other Name,”The State of Jones,” (film and book); “Jacobin #18, 2015 on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War;   Also a small book, not reviewed that reflects on this topic:  They Were White and They Were Slaves.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
August 14, 2016

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Children of Men

“Ivan’s Childhood,” directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962

In the face of the incredible avalanche of reactionary red-baiting and war-mongering by the Clinton campaign against Russia, Trump, Jill Stein and the Green Party, Wikileaks, Julian Assange and anyone else who doesn’t want to fight two more wars in Syria and Ukraine, I figured we needed a bit of a response to this shit-storm.  (See Glenn Greenwald’s excellent take-down of the Clinton campaign’s Russian-hating methods dated 8/8/2016 on the ‘Intercept’ site.

(Assange has announced that a recently killed DNC employee, Seth Rich, was the actual leaker.  Rich was murdered during a 'robbery.'  Another convenient death!)

Ivan in ruins
It consists of an appreciation of Soviet and Russian culture.  This is the first film by the great Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, who later did “Solaris” and “Andrei Rublev.”  Jean Paul Sartre defended this film when it was attacked by the Italian CP in their paper ‘L’Unita,’ which accused Tarkovsky of using ‘petit-bourgeois’ artistic methods like dream sequences and character complexity (!) You are usually in good company when you side with Sartre on cultural matters.  A young Ingmar Bergman was influenced by the film as well.  This is a touching film showing the deep impact of WW II on the Soviet youth of their day.  It displays the humanism of the Soviet soldiers, who adopt a young boy who works as a spy for them behind Nazi lines.  They know this is a very dangerous job, which can only lead in one direction.  The young Ivan (and yes, all Russians are called ‘Ivan’ in slang…) has lost his parents in a fascist massacre.  He is tough, skinny, blond and just a kid, but now prematurely aged by the war, which is all he thinks about. 

The scenes of floating across the river are some of the most beautiful in Soviet film.  The war is shown, not in the American way by constant combat, explosions, battle, etc. but as a looming presence infusing every scene, however quiet, with fear and dread.  Combat is not always about fighting, as any soldier knows. Dreams (dreams!) and flashbacks intrude.  This gives the film the feel of actual human reality, not that of an American war cartoon or of social-realist hero worship.  It uses long takes, not the hyper-jumpiness of present ADD advertising or Hollywood film. 

The film ends with actual Soviet war footage shot in Berlin, first focusing on the 6 poisoned children of Goebbels lying in a row.  Then there is a film scene of one of  Ivan’s protectors discovering his fate in the Reich’s efficient basement archives.  In this war wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends not only lost their loved-ones - this film shows men losing their emotional sons.  The film does not wallow in the glory of war, as did Soviet films prior to 1956.  It was produced in the Khrushchev period during a ‘thaw’ in cultural control and was extremely popular in the Soviet Union. 

Given the Russians have experienced war on their land in recent memory, while the U.S. has never experienced it since 1865, I’d say Russians are a bit less eager than Americans to do it again.  This was the real story throughout the ‘cold war’ and the nuclear threat, and is no less true today.  It is certainly reflected in this film.

Red Frog
August 9, 2016

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Viet Damn

“The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015

This biting historical and satirical novel examines the Vietnamese experience after the American War ended – that of the refugees, the ARVN hardcore and the Communist victors.  Nguyen is a sympathizer of the Vietnamese revolution that overthrew capital and kicked the U.S. out of Vietnam, but he also sympathizes personally with the experience of all of the Vietnamese, even the sad cases that were thrown onto the U.S. mainland after April 1975.  Hence the double meaning of the title.

The Satiric War
The central character is a Communist agent who has been assigned to spy on the ARVN secret police and military.  He (a man with no name) is a spy embedded with a top General in the ARVN security services, feeding information to his Viet Cong contacts and later the CP government through invisible ink on the pages of a ridiculous right-wing book.  Scenes portray the last days of the Saigon regime and the downtrodden lives of the Vietnamese exiles in Los Angeles.  It closes with a doomed and pathetic military attempt to infiltrate back into Vietnam through Laos to start a guerilla war.

He’s conflicted because he likes free love, drinking, good novels, rock music and aspects of the U.S. like air-conditioning, while still making merciless fun of American racism and reactionary cultural clichés. These are best expressed in quotations from William Westmoreland and the making of the film “Apocalypse Now” – both portrayed through aliases in this book.  Nguyen writes the book from the Vietnamese ethnic perspective, looking at the odd customs and ideas of white Americans from the outside.

As a product of the rape of a Vietnamese woman by an American priest (perhaps symbolic), his own body is marked by this conflict.  The Vietnamese continually call him a ‘bastard’ – and that starts him on a critical look at Vietnamese culture too.  He is forced by the General to participate in the killing of a fat major suspected of being a ‘red’ spy – fingered by himself to deflect attention. He is also forced to kill a liberal Vietnamese journalist who thinks the Vietnamese should get over the war.  Both of these acts weigh on his conscience and politics. 

He has two ‘blood’ brothers – Man and Bon - who attempt to take care of each other throughout the whole book, even though Bon supports the Saigon government and Man and he support the Communist Party.  This odd personal thread makes him even more conflicted due to his personal loyalties.  And perhaps that is the nature of reality, according to Nguyen. 

Ultimately the spy is sent to a re-education camp after being captured by his own people.  He had joined a reactionary guerilla incursion into Vietnam against orders, something he ostensibly did to save his buddy Bon.  Earlier he had not stopped the rape of a female Vietcong agent, and for that they seek a confession.  In the camp he is tortured by his friend Man (!) using CIA/Phoenix/MKUltra methods of sensory deprivation, designed not to mar the body but to break down the mind – loud music, sleeplessness, nakedness, lack of human contact, sight or hearing.  These methods the Communists learned from the CIA – methods used by the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo.  He eventually is released by parroting one of Ho Chi Minh’s most important sayings, which Nguyen interprets as having a double-meaning. 

Nguyen (unlike Ralph Ellison in “The Invisible Man,” who Nguyen points out, retreated to individualism) still believes in the revolution, but is aware of its fallibility – especially the growth of bureaucratic oppression like re-education camps and confessions forced on many citizens.  This method was based on psychological criticism/self-criticism theory imported from Maoism.  The whole book is actually slyly structured as a ‘confession.’  Yet Nguyen is an anti-imperialist even with his broad sympathies, and thus an outlier in the right-wing, gold-bar Vietnamese Diaspora.  Here is one of his quotes from the book:  "Not to own the means of production can lead to premature death, but not to own the means of representation is also a kind of death."  Hence his writing...

This is the funniest ‘black humor’ book to come out of the American war – if humor can exist in such a context.  It is a great first novel that aims most of its fire at the U.S. and its crapulent allies.   

And did he recently win the Pulitzer Prize for this very work?  I think so.

Other books about Vietnam reviewed below:  People’s History of the Vietnam War,” “What it is like to go to War,” “Kill Anything That Moves,” “Matterhorn,” “Soldiers in Revolt,” “In the Crossfire,”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it a Mayday Bookstore's excellent fiction section!
Red Frog
July 26, 2016

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

All You Don't Need Is ...

Love or the Alternative

In politics, the slogan of "love" is an overly-used cliché that demands an inordinate amount of emotional attachment to a very large group of strangers. Because of its utopian unreachability, it is a 'religious' or pop idea, not a real one. We do not need to 'love' every American or every human being. At best we need to be able to cooperate.  We do need to tolerate differences among working people, but we don't need to take everyone out for a beer or a coffee. Really!  As to 'loving' the rich, or tolerating the rich, that is where American nationalism (and every other…) tries to weld the rich and working classes of each nation together. No one will 'love' the rich or even tolerate them until they stop being what they are - rich.

Group Hugs are Insufficient
But I digress.  You hear the tactic of ‘love’ from The Beatles – “All You Need is Love” … and now every millionaire musician or athlete.  You hear it from Black Lives Matter.  You hear it from the Peace Corps – a cultural arm of the State Department.  Private equity businessman Mitt Romney believed in love.  Martha Nussbaum, a feminist professor at the U of Chicago, wrote a whole book on it as an essential political tactic, confusing love with empathy.  Even ‘The Atlantic’ and Paul Ryan believe in ‘love’ – as if it is the same as a commitment to community.  Hillary Clinton, a war-maker of the first order, believes in it.  Subarus are even made by 'love.'  And you thought it was only tender-hearted hippies?  The term has been appropriated, folks.  Many preachers – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu - espouse this fantasy from their pulpits while never actually creating a force to ‘institute’ this slippery emotion.  Their churches are certainly not it, as they’ve had plenty of time to prove it. 

In a word, it is easy American cant.  It is hard enough to actually love those closest to you, let alone a bunch of co-workers or a crowd in a bar.   The people in your union local are unlikely targets.  Even “love’ of the family or romantic or friend kind demands more than that simple emotion.  Anyone who thinks that ‘love’ will solve all problems, let alone class differences or ethnic problems, is a salesman of fake happiness and is undoubtedly unserious. 

But I digress, or perhaps not.  It’s unpopular to come out against love of this kind – self-congratulatory, abstract, sterile, rhetorical love.  We cannot admit the obvious.  Like actors who thank God for winning an Oscar or Grammy or hack song writers who have no other topic, we have to look away.  Like God, apple pie and the military, it supposedly unites us all.   It is the swarmy cat-video of political jargon.  It is the bastard child of pop psychology and the happiness industry.  Flag it when you hear it.  Someone is lying.

What will replace such an august, ostensibly ‘political’ emotion?  What will put love back in its rightful place?  I think a real political movement settles for cooperation.  Ultimately cooperation is based on the organization of the workplace, not the organization of the family.  The ideology of the family is what is behind the inert propaganda of 'love' pushed by social reactionaries - something not really suited to bind millions of workers across the world.  In fact 'families' can be quite limited.  Disparate people who have little to unite them in their personal lives can agree on certain basics in action.  Marxists don’t believe that every worker has to love every other worker – it is not doable.  Not even in the same organization!   

But uniting together in practice, in cooperation, as a class, will one day result in something much closer to ‘love’ than the fake imitation we are told to engage in.  After all, the sticky issue of those fascists and capitalists we are supposed to embrace to our bosoms gives the love slogan the odor of a contradictory lie.  Instead, make a boss unhappy. Unite against high rents.  Go on strike.  Form a union.  Oppose a pipeline.  Join a revolutionary or labor organization.  Act together for some progressive purpose.  Eventually that turns into going out for beer or coffee, and perhaps more. 

Red Frog
July 19, 2016

Monday, July 11, 2016

All Over the Map

“The Marxist Theory of Art,” by Dave Laing, 1978

This book is an excellent survey introducing the reader to various Marxist’s theories of art.  It includes short surveys of Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Brecht, Luckacs, Gramsci, Mao, Althusser, Baxandall, Barthes, Benjamin – and some post-modernists that attempt to use Marxism like Kristeva.  Laing spends a good amount of time on Mao Tse-Tung, who is usually ignored in these compendiums. Written in 1978 it takes the recent forms of structuralism and post-modernism seriously, but then rejects them. 

The Hungarian Lukacs - one of many
 Basically, in 1978 there was no consensus on what a ‘Marxist theory of art’ is - just different takes on certain themes.  Clearly a synthesis needs to be reached.  The differences seem to mostly revolve around various apparent contradictions: ‘realism’ versus ‘modernism;’  ‘high’ culture versus ‘low’ or folk culture; art as a ‘passive’ reflection of society or as an ‘active’ dialectical part of society; art as materialistic sociology or as revolutionary praxis; art as decreed by the state or as inspired individualism; art as uplifting or as depressing; art as individualist or as communal; art as a purely economic production process or as living in some higher ‘psychic’ location; art’s economic profitability versus its ability to transcend profit.  And so on.

To my mind, many of these are false contradictions.  Many can be true at the same time, their contradictions taken into account in a higher unity. Lukacs, writing in the 1920 “The Theory of the Novel,” staked his theory on 19th century bourgeois fiction and ruled out anything after that.   Is then ‘stream of consciousness,’ a modernist style after the 19th Century, impossible in the ‘realist’ novel?  Is a theater performance only an attempt to copy real life?  Is classical music the only valid musical art form, one useful in ‘lifting’ the working class up?  Do we always need heroes?  Is agitprop the only style of theater?  Can a society have only one approved artistic painting style?  Can art both reflect and still have a thrust for change? Just asking the questions answers them.  Of course many of these apparent contradictions also depend on the scale of the difference.

What accounts for the different theories?  Many outlooks in this book seem to be historically-based, reflecting the particular material and working-class culture of the theorist’s moment - or needs.  Television, the internet or film get short shift from many of these Marxists, from Engels on. No doubt, future Marxist theories of art will adapt to the culture of the working class as it exists now, not in 1850 or 1930. In addition, the attitude towards art is different within a capitalist society than after the working-class has conquered power.  In the latter, the working class, along with all other classes, will disappear, and this can change the approach to art.   

It is also quite clear that the complex structure of the working classes in the central capitalist countries will produce a varied material culture not easily ‘boxed,’ while societies in the ‘global south’ have an ethnic or religiously-varied working class, and also a more oppressed one.  Both will produce a different kind of culture.  Yet globally there is a certain amount of blending going on too, in almost every field – painting, music, film, the novel, theater, the practical arts like clothing – reflecting the increasing unity of world cultures as capitalist globalization proceeds.  It is creating the links that might allow proletarian internationalism on a cultural level to succeed as well, something that Marx’s slogan ‘workers of the world, unite’ predicted.  ‘Globalization’ could lead to world socialism in spite of itself. 

To take just the most famous debate, Friedrich Engels and Gyorgy Lukacs have been used to give a theoretical basis to socialist realism.  Vladimir Lenin himself wanted an art of revolutionary action, though parts of socialist realism do not actually inspire that.  Yet socialist realism was bureaucratically decreed the only viable form of art, film, literature, poetry in the USSR and other workers states – thus cutting the ruling party off from many cultural developments, the youth and ultimately the working class.  Lukacs opposed Bertold Brecht in this situation, as the former supported socialist realism and Brecht went beyond it.  Brecht did not believe in heroes or making theater entirely naturalistic, and believed in incorporating tenants of modernism instead.  Brecht was a working artist – Lukacs a theorist.  Lukacs was used by the bureaucrats in Moscow; Brecht, not so much.  They both opposed the capitalist view of art – profitable, overwhelmingly individualist, ‘for its own sake,’ ‘style is paramount,’ as pure decoration or entertainment. 

To my mind, socialist realism is certainly a valid style, but not the only one, and this has been proved in practice.  The leftist writing of John Dos Passos incorporated ‘quick cuts,’ as did the film of Eisenstein – both modernist techniques.  Now, however, capitalist art has taken it to such an extreme that no film image sticks, so technique is not decisive, but it can be ideological as well.  Generally technique should not be decisive if the content transmits and is not buried. 

 Ultimately more modern theorists like Walter Benjamin looked for a synthesis of the various views.  This approach mirrors that of Trotsky, who famously blocked with surrealists like Andre Breton and Frida Kahlo and muralist Diego Rivera when he declared that a workers government could not decree a certain artistic style.  Neither Benjamin nor Trotsky are highlighted in this book, which is odd given their volume of writing on the subject.  Due to the book’s age, a later, more conclusive survey of Marxist theories of art is needed.
See prior reviews on “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,” “Women in Soviet Art,” “9.5 Thesis on Art & Revolution,” “Desert of Forbidden Art,”  The Red Atlantis of Communist Culture,” “Left in London,” and “The Art of Nothingness.” Use blog search box, upper left.  

And I bought it at the excellent used section at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
July 11, 2016

Monday, July 4, 2016

Mississippi John Brown

“The Free State of Jones,” directed by Gary Ross, 2016

This film is somewhat freely adapted from the book of the same name (reviewed below) that told the hidden story of the South during the Civil War.  The story is one among many that shows that the myth of southern nationalism was just that –  a weak ideology promoted by the planter class and economically based on slave plantation labor, not on free labor or individual farming.  Counties and areas in nearly every slave state – Florida, Texas, Tennessee, North & South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and here, Mississippi – were in rebellion against the war.  Newton Knight and his comrades liberated almost 3 Mississippi counties - Jones, Jasper & Covington - from Confederate control, Jones County being at the center of their temporary ‘free’ state. 
Grave of Newton Knight
This film will open the eyes of many people unaware of this aspect of Civil War history, or the dark history of Reconstruction itself.  It is a class view of the Civil War, not a ‘regional’ or slavers’ view. 

Knight himself was a Primitive Baptist and owned no slaves, nor did many in these piney woods counties that contained many swamps and streams.  Knight and his fellows were drafted into the Confederate Army and were camped in Corinth, Mississippi during the bloody battle of the same name.  The news reaches them that anyone with 20 slaves could exempt one of their sons from serving in the Confederate army, and the more slaves you had, the more sons you could exempt.  As Knight puts it, they are fighting a ‘rich man’s war.’ Which sounds like Vietnam and every war since, with little shits like George Bush hiding in the National Guard while claiming patriotism. “Why fight for another man’s slaves?” Knight asks.  Quite right. 

Knight deserts back to Jones County, the main reason to bring back the body of a young relative killed in Corinth to his mother. He meets his white wife (who had left him) and they nurse their child back to health with help from a black slave, Rachel. His neighbors tell him about the depredations of the official Confederate foragers and recruiters, who impress men into the army and take much more from poor local citizens than the allowed 10% of corn, hogs and anything else they can grab. He stands up to a group of them, then disappears.  Desertion can be punished by death, so eventually Knight ends up hiding in the swamp with a group of black men who have run away from their owners.

It is a small camp of black slaves and white small farmers.  Knight’s religion tells him that all men are men, and he does not look down on black people.  Eventually more slaves and deserters join the men and the camp grows.  At a certain point, critical mass is reached and all the men decide to confront the Confederates with arms.  After several armed or violent confrontations (which are not all historically based) with the local Confederate commanders and their white slave-owner allies, they take over Ellisville, Mississippi and the bulk of 3 counties.  They ask for aid from Sherman, but only some rifles come. Knight and his neighbors go ahead anyway and proclaim a “Free State of Jones” that abolishes slavery, gives anything grown to the man who grows it (share-cropping and foragers be damned) and several other populist planks.  The Stars and Stripes fly over Ellisville.  A whole Confederate brigade marches on Ellisville after a time and the rebels go back to hiding in the swamps.   Then they hear the war is over.

Knight has to fight simmering ethnic hostility against the blacks by some of the most backward whites.  At this point he has a relationship with that black woman, Rachel, who earlier cured his own child of pneumonia and later led him to the hidden camp.  She is a slave on one of the biggest owner’s plantations.  After the war, Knight and his black lover and former white wife move into the woods as far from these ex-Confederates as he can get, and a ‘mystery’ of the part black/part white boy begins. Newton and Rachel have a mixed child, which was illegal in racist Mississippi. He also deeded Rachel his 160 acres after his death, so she became one of the larger black landowners in Mississippi!  The trial of Knight’s mixed son for miscegenation (trying to marry a ‘pure’ white woman) in the 1960s plays counter-point in the film to the historical scenes, indicating that under Jim Crow 100 years later, nothing much has changed. 

Rachel & Newton
Reconstruction follows the end of the war and Knight is one of the few white men who vote Republican.  The film shows scenes of black people attempting to vote at the point of a gun at polls run by former Confederates officers, while white landowners do their best to replicate the conditions of slavery by impressing black boys as ‘apprentices.’   These anti-democratic crimes led to Northern troops occupying the Confederacy to guarantee the ballot to blacks.  What is not shown is the subsequent interregnum of mostly black and Republican rule in the South, as schools were developed for black people and blacks could own land.  After all, slaves outnumbered the whites!  Then the northern capitalists got sick of having troops in the South and the Klan (the Confederate Army in sheets) and former planter aristocracy came back into power through violence and terror.

Viewers know the rest.   

Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, which may attract movie-goers, though you never forget you are watching the self-obsessed McConaughey.  The film needs a bit less sentimentality and more editing, but than this is a Hollywood production.

The South is still the most politically backward part of the U.S., partly due to its history of racism and slavery.  But the insistence on a reactionary regional or ‘national’ identity by white Republicans and neo-Confederates is wearing thin, as the Confederate flag symbol controversy attests.  White workers in the South who line up politically with their rich bosses are some of the most deluded people in the U.S., as scape-goating of blacks or Latinos has also hurt their economic status.   This film shows that even in the 1860s not all white people bought into this perspective but understood who their real enemy was – the plantation owners, their government and their wars, not each other.

Nothing much has changed, except we can exchange plantation owners for oil bosses, coal bosses and corporate bosses at Delta, Coca-Cola, US Steel, the auto-makers producing in the southern U.S., Tyson Foods and the many fast-food companies that are headquartered in the south.  Together with their northern brethren, they make up the new wage-labor plantation system – open to all, but still making more money off black and Latino labor – just like the good ‘ol days.     

Red Frog
July 4, 2016

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Modern Muckraking

“Gray Mountain,” by John Grisham, 2015

Grisham is the writer of progressive lawyers.  His heroes are usually low-end attorneys who take on the good fight.  They battle corporations, the bureaucratic government, crooked lawyers and ‘experts,’ cops and racists.  His books consistently rank in the best seller lists because they are page-turners, skillfully plotted numbers that put you on the side of ‘right.’  In this case, it is the war against the wealthy coal companies in Virginia, West Virginia and eastern Tennessee who practice mountain-top removal, ignore black-lung disease and have millions of dollars to fight lawsuits against environmental degradation and the destruction of worker health.

Mountain Top Removal in the Appalachian Mountains
The biggest question is, of course, do these class actions and ‘good’ fights ultimately change who controls the U.S.?  It has certainly been proven, as was shown in the book ‘Class Action,” (reviewed below) that these legal decisions can have long-term progressive consequences for women, working class people, ethnic minorities, etc.  “Brown v Board of Education,” “Roe v Wade,” and others have been imprinted into U.S. culture.  Yet both these decisions reflect larger movements within society that impacted the legal system.  In that sense, lawyers come second to the movements.  Grisham does not show this, but instead focuses on the heroic lawyer.  Yet law is politics by other means and is directly connected to the class struggle.  In a society where private property is a legal right across the board, ultimately all of these defensive fights are waged against the prevailing legal structure.  Many times that capitalist legal structure is the problem itself, and not something that can be defeated in a court of law.

Grisham here starts with a familiar theme – the upper-middle class person thrown into poverty or unemployment due to social factors.  In this case it is the economic collapse of 2008 when a female real-estate contract attorney – Samantha Kofer – is laid-off from her job in a lucrative coporate law firm in Manhattan along with hundreds of others.  Upper middle-class people are not supposed to be laid off or fired or lose their loft, cappuccinos and martinis.  Samantha is oddly forced to seek ‘intern’ work in the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in remote Brady, Virginia in order to preserve her right to be recalled back to work.  So she ends up going to Appalachia to practice the kinds of law she has no experience of, or doesn’t like – wills, litigation, divorce, battery, TROs, black lung compensation – anything a small town lawyer might do in such a conflicted location.  Drugs, poverty and unemployment dominate the mountain towns.  Being a corporate real-estate contract attorney is probably the dullest job in law, and even Samantha is sick of it, but this at first is beyond her ken.

The predictable romance and ‘adventure’ follows while she is thrown into battles against greedy relatives who want to sell their land to coal companies; violent meth-heads who beat their wives; rich coal companies who attempt to intimidate her with goons and the FBI; a dying coal-miner who is denied black-lung benefits, which is a standard practice by the coal companies.  The unions have been destroyed in many of these coal fields.  Mountain top removal is the cheaper way to mine coal over the deep ‘vein’ underground mining that existed when unions were prevalent.  Grisham shows the environmental devastation of mountain top removal - streams and rivers polluted and destroyed, timber bulldozed, people killed by careening trucks and boulders, homes leveled. It is clear here that the destruction of unions and people also leads to the decimation of the land.

Samantha works with the Brady female legal-aid lawyers who are tough and stand up to the intimidation on a daily basis, and begins to enjoy the human companionship, shorter hours, nature and meaning of her new job.  Yet she still dreams of Manhattan, and considers her stay to be very temporary.  Like most upper-middle class people, she has family reserves.  Both her parents are high-level attorneys – her mother in the Justice Department, her father a former class action attorney, now funding class actions.  Both of these contacts come in handy in the fight against the coal companies.

Ultimately some stolen documents play a role in the litigation against the coal companies.  The edge between ‘legal’ and illegal is here walked through the book, with Samantha trying to avoid the marginal tactics that the opponents of the coal companies use in order to hold their own.  Grisham hints that always playing by the book is a losing strategy against such opponents. Shots ring out against enormous truck tires.  An odd sentiment for a lawyer, who is supposed to 'believe in the law.'

I’ll leave you with a quote from a coal miner in the book applying for black lung benefits, and his dealinsg with the well-paid corporate attorneys:
“I remember those guys in court, in front of the administrative law judge.  Three or four of them, all in dark suits and shiny black shoes, all strutting around so important.  They would look over at us like we was white trash, you know, just an ignorant coal miner with his ignorant wife, just another deadbeat trying to game the system for a monthly check.  I can see them right now, arrogant little shits, so smart and smug and cocky because they knew how to win and we didn’t.  I know it’s not very Christian-like to hate, but I really, really despised those guys.” 
He goes on:
            “They got the money, the power, the doctors, and I guess the judges.  Some system.”

Other books by Grisham reviewed below:  "A Time to Kill" and "Sycamore Row.

Red Frog
June 26, 2016

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Read Down Memory Lane

"Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens – Essays on the Global Economic Meltdown,  (2010-2014)” by Richard Wolff, 2016

This book certainly proves that blog posts and essays can become books.  Wolff is one of the few Marxist economics professors in the U.S. and for that we should be grateful.  However, as a professor he writes essays that are repetitive and seem to be aimed at freshman in college.  At this point, his book provides a helpful tracking of some of the issues involved in Obama’s corporate handling of the financial crisis that started in 2007.  Remember the ‘fiscal cliff?’ Or the “grand compromise’ with the Republicans?  The ‘debt commission?’ Or ‘government shutdowns’, ‘debt ceilings’ and attempts at ‘bipartisanship’?  Wolff is repeatedly inspired by the class analysis of Occupy Wall Street.  He also seems to be inspired by FDR and the history of the U.S. in the 1930s, constantly comparing it to the pro-Wall Street, neo-liberal response of Obama and the Democratic Party to a similar situation.  In a familiar litany, the banking industry, corporations and the rich – the 1% - were saved, while ‘Main Street’ was left behind.

Spain's Mondragan Corporation
Wolff’s main contribution is his advocacy, along with people like Stanley Aronowitz, of workers’ self management, which he calls ‘worker self-directed enterprises.’ (WSDE)  Mondragon in Spain is his shining example – a massive, democratically-run organization that avoids layoffs and high pay differentials and is involved in many different businesses, employing 85,000 people in 2010.  It is a combination of 100 cooperatives and WSDEs.  It survived the collapse of the Spanish economy after 2007 quite well.  He compares the bureaucratized ‘actually existing socialism’ of the USSR, Eastern and Central Europe, the PRC, Vietnam and Cuba to WSDE enterprises and points to their failures in democratizing the workplace, which he thinks is the real or only reason that led to their collapse.  He makes a good case for making workers’ self-management part of any ‘transitional program’ towards real socialism – which he says the USSR and the PRC never had.  Wolff thinks one reason that ‘really existing socialism’ failed was because the ‘standard’ definition of socialism only meant government ownership and control of production. 

In a way, Wolff is most closely associated with the views of the International Socialist Organization (“ISO”).  He now sees China as ‘capitalist.’  His brief descriptions of the problems of the socialist and communists movements is laughably vague ...perhaps intentionally so.  He preaches socialism over and over again with one prime transitional demand – workers’ cooperatives and little else.    

Wolff dances around whether socialized ownership of production and national / international planning should be part of a socialist program, or even a real emphasis on political democracy through work and geographic counsels. Instead he points to the 13.7 million U.S. citizens working in 11,400 employee stock ownership plan companies. (ESOP)  He insists that enough decentralized WSDEs will lead, in the right context of capitalist economic turbulence, to a peaceful transition to socialism.  This, of course, is dubious. 

As experience has shown in the U.S., cooperatives, ESOPs, communes, 'non-profits' and other businesses not run directly by capital can revert back to private ownership, can collapse or can ape capitalist businesses.  Which figures, because they are surrounded by a sea of capital. Socialism in one firm?  Not really.  If cooperatives proliferate, they ultimately will set one group of workers in a cooperative against another cooperative.  Since they are not part of a plan, ultimately they would have to be coordinated.  Cooperatives are certainly an improvement over the top-down, shareholder/owner profit model of the typical capitalist corporation however.  That is their progressive character. 

Here are some nuggets from Wolff’s essays:

  1. Unlike Monthly Review, Wolff has charts that show U.S. capitalist profits (perhaps not overall growth) rising from 1975 to 2007.  And profit is the name of the game.  In 2014 they were around 10% AFTER taxes.  This is the flip side of the ‘stagnation’ argument and one that undermines it. 
  2. Wolff has charts that show U.S. corporate taxes dropping since WWII.  Corporations paid the majority of taxes in 1943 – which was the last time they paid more.  In 2008 individuals paid 3.5 times in taxes what corporations paid.  In 2009 corporate taxes were 7% of the total.  Payroll and individual taxes accounted for nearly all of the rest.  Payroll taxes for working-class people even went up in 2013.  As Marx pointed out, taxes are a weapon of upward distribution - so the Tea-Party had it right!  They are administered by a capitalist state and voted on by a capitalist-dominated congress, not some neutral party. 
  3. Wolff takes down Keynesianism and our resident NYT Keynesian, Paul Krugman… the economist who promoted Clinton, the Un-Keynesian.  He calls Keynesianism “capitalism’s plan B.” 
  4. Wolff does come out clearly for socialized banking, due to the sector’s collapse world-wide. 
  5. He has an interesting article on Harvard students walking out of some Econ 101 basic class because it only promoted Freidmanite capitalism. 
  6. Wolff is irritated that Marxism is not allowed in the so-called ‘marketplace of ideas’ in the U.S., but says that due to the 2007 crash that is changing slowly.
  7. Wolff repeated lampoons the ‘circulation of capital’ as U.S. corporations and the rich don’t pay taxes, while recessions reduce individual and sales tax receipts.  The billionaires instead promote austerity by laying off government workers and not funding government unemployment or foreclosure programs.  This after crashing the economy and getting bailed out by the same government going into debt!  The prime buyers of government bonds – i,e, government debt – are these same people.  So when the government goes into debt because of lack of taxes, because of economic recession, they issue more bonds.  And these same scoundrels collect the interest!  As they say, coming and going, coming and going. 
  8. The ‘bailout’ of Greece was really a bailout of the European banks.
  9. Wolff coins the phrase ‘scapegoat economics.’  Think Greece, unemployed people or Latinos.  Anyone else you’d like to blame?
  10. A ‘market’ does not equal capitalism, as markets exist in many types of economies.
This book is a primer to the last 8 years if you need one.  But most of its arguments are by now very familiar and are NOT as the title shows, about the deepening of the present capitalist crisis in 2016.  There is no looking forward at all, except on the issue of WSDEs.

Another book by Wolff reviewed below:  Occupy the Economy.” Use search box, upper left.
And I bought it at Mayday Books
Red Frog
June 15, 2016