Monday, July 28, 2014

Desert Rebels Against Dystopia

"Good News,” by Edward Abbey, 1980

Abbey is the desert anarchist who wrote while working as a park ranger around the Grand Canyon.  His fiction is movie-like, featuring close escapes, somewhat cartoon villains and the struggle against industrialism gone crazy.  As he puts it, it is about ultimately the ‘oldest civil war, that between the country and the city.’  Good News” is a combination of “Don Juan, a Yaqui Way of Knowledge,” Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” Larry McMurtry westerns like “Lonesome Dove,” and “The Road Warrior.” It is a post-apocalyptic look at the west after the collapse of industrial capitalism, centered on a city wasteland, called Phoenix.  The book is prescient in its descriptions and has aged well.  For instance, Abbey identifies the U.S. as a former corporate oligarchy before its fall. 

A catastrophe has destroyed the United States, leaving broken-down cars, empty malls, shuttered stores and an absent government. (And it wasn’t the 2008 financial crash!)  In its place are the remnants of the frightened citizenry and a megalomaniacal dictator called “The Chief” who wants to not only reconstitute the United States with his army of 2000+, and conquer the rest of the world next, but go on to the planets and the universe, where he will meet his ‘God.’  He plans to march east and occupy Washington D.C.  This is a country, by the way, that has almost no fuel left, which must be carried in massive tanker trucks.  So, monomaniacal times 3.  The Chief lives in a steel and glass skyscraper run by diesel generators in the middle of the smoking ruin of Phoenix, sort of like Sauron’s tower.  The skyscraper here has come to symbolize late-stage capitalism, like a pyramid shining out of the past.

Why apocalyptic disasters do not have clear causes is a mystery.  Book or film cannot name what actually happened.  Nuclear war?  Other kinds of wars? Environmental catastrophe or global warming?  Economic collapse?  The end of resources?  The seizure of power by a fascistic rich class?  All you get are crappy hints. This shows either cowardice or cluelessness, although Abbey is neither.  Abbey seems to indicate that something about industrialism led it to a dead end – a lack of food as the land was destroyed by ‘progress.’  He is a deep ecologist, and posits a rural, agrarian existence based on small landholdings as the counter-point to industrial society of any kind. The “state” is the prime enemy, as in most anarchist fiction.  

The struggle features an old cowpoke and a Hopi shaman on horse-back, an impulsive young man, several tough, good-hearted women and an anarchist guerilla leader against The Chief, his sadistic motor-cycle thugs, his chosen #2 and various sad military lackeys.  One of the motorcycle cops, Brock, is a relentless killer, torturer and rapist, who rides with a brutal Apache.  The Chief knows he is a torturer, but says, prematurely channeling George Bush, that people like Brock allow the ‘Chiefs’ of the world to have ‘clean hands.’  Brock is eventually dealt with … using magic.  Resorting to magic, especially in a literary work, indicates that even the likes of Abbey are impotent before vicious violence. 

Abbey includes a sub-story involving the old cowboy, Burns, looking for his long lost son, who turns out to be the Chief’s #2, Barnes.  This search does not go well. The anarchist guerrillas, who shout “Viva la Libertad” and “Tierra o Muerte” before being hung (shades of the Spanish Civil War…) are led by a professor named Rodack, and are mostly students, some Native Americans and Chicanos.  Portraying your anarchist guerrillas as mostly young students might be a weak point.  Bad pop Muzak plays throughout the Tower and also during the executions on “Unity Square,” which seems named after someplace in Assad’s Syria.  In contrast, a frustrated classical piano player remembers Beethoven and Bach while being forced to play Dylan in a bar.  Abbey, in laughable detail, names all the closed shops that line the weed-grown streets when the collapse happened circa 1984 (!) – Victoria’s Secret, Holiday Inn, B. Dalton, 7-11, McDonalds, Checker Auto Parts, Sambos, Denny’s, Food Giant, Odyssey Records and Tapes, etc.  The head of the military bordello describes the wonders of the vanished civilization to one of her new charges – eating all the time, driving everywhere, dressing in nice clothes, air-conditioning, entertainment, vacations, the Pentagon, drugs for every problem, power plants…

Abbey understood the problems of western capitalism even in 1980, before the recent extreme take-off of inequality and corporatism.  His analysis blames all of industrial society, yet is unable to separate out the role capital plays with the role ‘the city’ or ‘the state’ or ‘industry’ play in that kind of economy, where they become key and oppressive aspects of capitalist development.  Take the city. The growth of massive cities across the world is an outcome of the concentration of capital, as monopoly destroys agrarian land by ownership and with chemically-enhanced export mono-crops.  The concentration of people mimics the concentration of wealth. Present Phoenix, like Vegas and even Los Angeles, is itself at risk, slated for destruction through lack of water, increased fires, an influx of climate refugees and global heat waves from runaway climate change.  Who builds a massive city in the middle of a desert? Only capital accumulation and lack of planning would lead to something like this.  Abbey is always a rollicking good read.  He refused to remove politics from his literature, unlike the approved writers of purely aesthetic fiction, and hence rises above them.

Dystopian and post-apocalyptic film and fiction - “The Road,”The Hunger Games,” “Blade Runner or "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” "World War Z," and "Cloud Atlas"  are reviewed below.  The Monkey-Wrench Gang” by Abbey is also reviewed.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

Red Frog
July 28, 2014

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mutiny on the Bounty

"Soldiers in Revolt – GI Resistance During the Vietnam War,” by David Cortright, 1975, intro by Howard Zinn

This is a true work of people’s history, written by a former GI activist in the U.S. military during Vietnam, who took years to document many acts of revolt - and to tie them together.  Most of these events were hidden from the general U.S. press, which rarely gave a real picture of what was going on in the Army, Marines, Navy & Air Force.  Even to this day, CNN in its ‘60’s’ coverage gives almost no space to the rebellion in the U.S. military against Vietnam, and by extension, imperialism.  The book is based on a close reading of 250 dissident military newspapers, anti-war materials and contacts among GI activists, as well as official documents and news stories. 

What clearly comes through from every fragging, act of sabotage; refusal to fight, board ship or fly; desertion, insubordination, military prison takeover, riot, GI organization, off-base coffee-house, GI newspaper, vigil, march, rally and published statement is that the U.S. military, from the Army to the Marines, from the Navy to the Air Force, broke down in Vietnam.  It was a chief reason why the U.S. gave up the fight.  At one point, 3 aircraft carriers were demobilized by sabotage or rebellions.  Soldiers in the field stopped obeying their officers.  Some army barracks were taken over by rebels for short periods of time.  This extended from Vietnam to Japan, Thailand, Guam and the Philippines, into nearly every camp in the U.S. and into Germany and the U.K.  It was worldwide, and involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers in various ways.  To accomplish this, the civilian anti-war movement and the soldier’s anti-war movement worked together frequently. 

The leaders in many of these fights were black soldiers.  The movement over common goals resulted in unity between black and whites, although there were also racial brawls between black radicals and the more conservative and racist white soldiers, or the even more racist white MPs.  The Black Panther Party was invited on to one base. Memorials for Malcolm X were held at another.  Black study groups sprang up everywhere.  Clearly the movement for black liberation in the U.S. intervened into the military. The movement started being against this particular war, then became against imperial intervention anywhere, and started to include the social demands of soldiers – better housing, the unjust military legal codes, racist military police and officers, discrimination in job assignments, mistreatment of various kinds, low pay and every other issue soldiers – similar to workers – have with their employer. 

In effect, the class war being waged by the Vietnamese extended into the ranks of the enemy army.  U.S. soldiers were the second line in this fight, and the third, the domestic anti-war and black radical movements.  The latter never extended far enough into the domestic labor movement, but if it had, that would have led to a more profound revolutionary crisis throughout U.S. society.  The labor movement, then and now, is harshly policed to forbid this kind of truly radical activity.

Cortright documents in painful detail every single rebellion, no matter how small.  I take great enjoyment in reading about every single one.  He lists the increasing AWOL rate – peaking in 1971 in the Army at 18% and the Marines in 1970 at 17.5%.  Or the desertion rate – 7% in 1971 for the Army and 6% in 1970 for the Marines.  In-service CO applications – the Army had 2,827 in 1971.  Discharges for misconduct and unfitness – 11% in 1970 for the Marines.  Marijuana usage?  42% of the Army used it in 1971.  In the 173rd Airborne, 68% had used weed.  Of course harder drugs were also being used.  Confirmed fraggings in the first 11 months of 1971 were 215.  80% of victims were officers or NCOs.  All these are from official figures and Cortright documents that some of these figures are under-counts, especially the latter.  Cortright does not shy away from supporting fragging or desertion or almost any action by angry soldiers, which shows that he understand who the real killers are. 

The issue of ‘who’ opposed the war the most – enlistees or the draftees – is handled in this book, but not very thoroughly.  While Cortright believes, following other writers, that the men who enlisted were the most unhappy with the war, there is little evidence of that in the book. The theory is that they felt most betrayed when the promises of ‘training,’ ‘fighting for your country’, ‘discipline’ and ‘leadership’ fell far short. Class itself does not play a large role in this analysis, but reading between the lines it is black and white working class people, especially from the cities, that formed the bulk of the resistance. 

Instead, when the military brass realized the extent of demoralization and opposition in the ranks in the early 1970s, enlistments were ended in a mass way – thousands were sent home.  The draft itself ended in 1971.  And this reduced the rebellion in the ground forces military almost overnight.  Cortright himself thinks that the draft would be re-established, and the ‘all volunteer’ army would become a failure.  That was his view in 1975.  Almost 40 years later we can say he was wrong.  The ‘high-tech’ mercenary army has enabled the U.S. to carry out many invasions since.  The ‘draft’ has not been seriously raised, except perhaps by people who view an army formed of economic refugees, right-wing patriots and macho personalities, reflecting a small slice of the population, to actually be anti-democratic.  The ‘citizens army’ is no more – perhaps because the citizens will no longer do what they are told.

Of particular interest is the issue of how the rebellion spread from the grunts in Vietnam to the Navy seamen, then to the air-craft carriers and bases, as the focus of the war changed over time from ground combat to air-bombing campaigns and big naval guns.  No part of the military was off-limits to protest – even groups of NCO’s, pilots and other officers came out in an organized way against the war. 

Another key point was the mistreatment of black soldiers.  One indicator was that they ended up in the military prisons in far higher numbers than their numbers in the military would indicate.  The prisons inside the army mirrored the prisons outside it.  Cortright makes an invaluable point that the U.S. Army was (and I think still is) heavily dominated by white Southerners in the leadership.  The South is also where most military bases are located.  In fact the largest employer in Texas is a federal base, Fort Hood in Killeen.  Their backward racist and classist ideas dominated the military at the time – sort of a Klan with bars and stars. 

The role of the left is not very visible in this book, except for a mention of the SWP’s Young Socialist Alliance.  He does mention the formation of a soldier’s union, which he asserts (in 1975 again) will continue to function due to the conditions in the forces. He documents how much the ‘volunteer army’ is costing the government, and how conditions were changing a bit to accommodate the ‘volunteers.’ Cortright exposes the lies told by recruiters to trick people into joining the armed forces.  He points out that without dealing with the racism in the military, no military can survive in the U.S.  I do not know if there are any organizations left in the ‘volunteer military,’ though a soldiers’ union is still needed.   

This book is essential to understanding how to stop a war.  Cortright includes a section on the history of resistance to militarism within the military in various American wars – especially the massive ‘Go Home” movement after fighting ended in World War II, which essentially forestalled another war from starting.  It is not about large peace crawls alone.  Or pacifism.  Or appealing to Democrats or liberals – who only opposed this war because it was a losing proposition.  The 300 dead Vietnamese to every 1 American ratio didn’t bother them.  To stop war the fight must be extended into the military itself – just as the Bolsheviks did in 1917 and the German revolutionaries did after WWI.  Take as much of the army from the capitalists as can be taken.  It has been done.  

Prior reviews of books on Vietnam – use search blog box in upper left are:  Kill Anything That Moves,” “Matterhorn,” “People’s History of the Vietnam War,” “What It Is Like to Go To War,” “In the Cross-fire – Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary,” and “Working-Class War.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books
Red Frog
July 24, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dive Down

"Palmers Bar,” Minneapolis, West Bank (of the Mississippi River), Minnesota, USA

Community is a word, and the actual reality is fleeting.  Especially in the alienated U.S. Talk to someone who you don’t know and register the startled looks.  Yet everyone seeks it.  Facebook is a placebo, as real community has to actually become ‘face to face’ not 'face to book.'   

Bars are face to face.  Barring medical problems like alcoholism, to paraphrase Karl Marx, be careful to trust those who don’t drink occasionally.  Fundamentalist Christians or Muslims or yoga bunnies?  Hmmm.  What better place to go than a public house, a bar?  In the U.S. the ‘bar’ is the long wooden high counter you lean against to get a drink.  Alcohol is a depressant for a wired-up population trying to do 100 things a day on caffeine.   Of course, too much booze and you are useless and demobilized. And that is the way the powers-that-be like it.

Bars have been organizing places.  The Minute Men, including Paul Revere, met in the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston.  The Bolsheviks met in the Crown Tavern in London.  The Wobblies met in the Dil Pickle Club in Chicago.  The Stonewall Inn led to the first mass gay fight against cops in New York.  Italian sharecroppers met in taverns to organize against landlords and Austrian occupiers in the late 1800s.  The First Continental Congress of the U.S. met at the City Tavern in Philadelphia.  Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop in New Orleans is the oldest bar in the U.S., and served as an organizing center against the British invasion of Louisiana.  You might know of a bar or public house in your town that has had a role in various progressive fights.   This is a mostly invisible part of people’s history.

Here in Minneapolis, we have a bar, Palmers, that has been a workingmen’s bar for many, many years – 108 to be exact.  It might not have organized much, except maybe a fight against the high-rise destruction of the West Bank in the early '70s.  In the 1960s, hippies gathered there to drink, across the street from the drug-saturated sidewalk next to Richter’s Drug and up the street from the vinyl Electric Fetus record shop, which is still in town.  It was part of the Minneapolis folk scene, and a poster of the cover of 1963’s “Blues, Rags & Hollers” is still is up on the wall, featuring some of Minneapolis legendary folkies during the time of Bob Dylan – John Koerner, Dave Ray and Tony Glover. It might be the only place left from the old ‘West Bank” – a time of hippies, pot, protest and music.  The other classic bars – the Viking, the Triangle, the Café Extemp, the Five Corners – have all closed.  Spider John Koerner still plays the tiny triangle-shaped stage at one end of Palmers, and his voice is almost as sweet as ever.  Koerner and Willie Murphy, another West Banker, did the best folk-rock album from that period, “Running Jumping Standing Still.” 

Posters of local musicians and patrons were up in the bar several weeks ago for sale, as art on the wall is now a regular thing.  Sometimes artists will sell their work while you are drinking.  In the 1980’s radicals used to argue Maoism, Pro-Sovietism and Trotskyism around the old pool table, an area which is now used for setting up bands.  I heard the ‘Theory of 3 Worlds’ took a verbal beating, not just at the pool table.

This year Esquire, a magazine of upscale male consumers, voted Palmers one of its top ten U.S. bars.  Esquire mentioned their simple ‘double whiskey with a beer back’ as a standout.  The regular mixed drinks are almost doubles, so buying beer might not be very cost-effective.  Strong stuff, so watch out.  A Pokeman bar crawl of odd geeksters came through one night, and the poor souls had a hard time leaving Palmers because they didn’t know what they had walked into.  After the award was announced, the bar made fun of the ‘craft cocktail douchbags’ at more trendy establishments on its Facebook page. The bands also cackled at the award, which tells you something about the bar.

Music is still in the lifeblood of Palmers.  Today the Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs sit in every Friday to continue the vibe, and on Wednesdays a ragged ‘Hippienanny’ allows people to sing along to their favorite tunes.  But late at night the young folks come out and the bar changes from older folks listening to blues rock or R&B to punks and young hipsters, and the music becomes alternative rock and punkier or funkier.  Two young and genial bar-tenders keep the place ‘up’ in the late hours, and one will even sing with the bands.  Big John, a 6+ foot black bouncer, keeps everything above board, and makes the place comfortable for every kind of entrant – black, Somali, old, young, working-class, poor and even single women, who can sit alone without being harassed by some meat-market type.  Out back in the patio a fire burns on cold evenings, people can smoke, sometimes even cigarettes.  The juke box is full of musical quality.  Next door is a closed Mosque, the victim of a fatal fire last winter in the building one door down from Palmers.  Somalis who don’t drink have to put up with the rowdy crowd of talkers in the back, very near to their high-rise ‘Mogadishu” in the West Bank apartments that tower over the bar.  Yet some Muslims come in to drink, talk and even dance.  Perhaps in secret – I don’t know.   I’ll have to ask.  

The place is partly owned by a female real estate attorney, Lisa, who drops in regularly.  Free produce from the co-ops is given away on Saturday mornings, and Korean women crowd the bar for vegetables and bread.  Free food crops up because of the many birthdays.  Musicians will yell out people’s names and those people answer.  The place tends to retain people – Dave is an older bartender whose been working there for 15 years.  The place has many regulars – old hippies with long grey hair, young bicycle punks, young and old musicians, suburbanites who are fleeing the suburbs, black folks who appreciate the laid-back vibe, Somalis running from Allah.  Big John had a 60th birthday party, and the whole bar joined in singing “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean after he got his present from the patrons.  Uptight suburbanite ‘slummers’ come through from time to time, and either do a quick circuit of the bar and back patio in horror, or stay for one quick drink to prove their mettle.  I.E. its not some fake ‘Cheers’ bar with scripted conversation, but a place where people actually can talk to each other.  If you don’t like talking to an eclectic group of ‘strangers,’ you shouldn’t show up.  And maybe, just maybe, you might not be a stranger anymore.  Drink up and see. 

(Book on the ‘Dil Pickle Club,’ below.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

Red Frog
July 14, 2014
Bastille Day – Liberate the Prisons!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Revolution Continues

"The End of the Revolution – China and the Limits of Modernity,” by Wang Hui, 2011

China contains the largest working class in the world, and is still a main fulcrum for the future of class struggle.  What happens there can determine the future in large part.  

Wang Hui has been identified with the ‘new left’ in China, a new left that has gone beyond waving the ‘red book.’  He is a critic of neo-liberalism, ‘developmentalism’ and corporate ‘modernity’ from a theoretical background that seems to include left sociology, soft Maoism, ‘morality’ and certain Western Marxists like Althusser and Gramsci.  The key chapters here are about the 1989 ‘Tiananmen’ movement and the collapse of the USSR, modernity as a concept, the rise of neo-liberalism in China and the subsequent de-politicization of society.

Hui is the author of a seminal history of Chinese philosophy, “The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought,” which he supplements in this volume.  The latter chapters concerning this book are mostly of interest to specialists, as they don't deal very much with Marxist or proletarian influences and more with, at least to Western eyes, idiosyncratic Chinese intellectual currents, although some concepts were certainly adopted by Mao.  The broad outlines are differences with respect to modernity and the ‘collective.’  However, Hui's favortie is Lu Xun, an 'organic' intellectual who left academe, and believed in permanent revolution and a cultural 'war of position' ala Gramsci.  Lu Xun was harsh and believed in conflict, not peace, nor forgiveness of social crimes.

Hui is a theoretically indistinct but detailed analyst.  He does not identify the class character of current China, though his running description is not complimentary.  He seems to indicate that the Chinese state peacefully transformed from proletarian to bourgeois as it went backwards, starting in the 1970s, but this is not clear.  He approves of Mao’s “Three Worlds Theory,’ even though a very good case could be made for it being the first significant theoretical step towards Western capital and away from class struggle.  This would be something he’d ostensibly oppose.  Hui was a supporter of the left movements around Tiananmen and clearly delineates the progressive from reactionary forces that were involved.  He gives actual breadth to a portrait that is stupidly pictured as ‘all counter-revolutionary’ or ‘all democratic.’ He debates various pro-government neo-liberals who do not question China’s path of development, which is increasingly capitalist and anti-popular.  The fact that some Chinese are reading and using Hayek, the famous libertarian reactionary, says something about the intellectual character of present debates.  Hui supports ‘markets’ but insists these are separate from capitalism, much as some anarchists do. 

What is most interesting is how heavily influenced the Chinese are by Western philosophy and ideas, starting in the early 1900s and the May 4th Movement, and continuing to this day.  Hui is not a ‘Chinese’ nationalist who believes in rejecting all ‘foreign’ ideas, but he does understand that China has ideas of its own, like ‘nationalism,’ that pre-date those of the West, or are contemporaneous.  Hui himself references many European thinkers.

Within China, the practical dividing line for Hui is how people stand on the ‘cultural revolution.’  From my perspective, the cultural revolution was an ultra-left and ultimately sectarian attempt to gain working-class democracy and control over the bureaucratization of China.  Unfortunately sectarian because it was used by a wing of the Chinese bureaucracy for their own power.  It ended in violence and chaos because it did not have a real solution to propose – actual control devolving to the ‘commune,’ or in the western term, workers and peasants councils, or in the Russian phrase, Soviets. Or the freedom to have various working-class parties and independent unions. In essence, working class / farmer democracy.  Yet it involved millions of workers, peasants and students in wresting control of factories, offices and land from the hierarchy for a time.  Any sympathy with the cultural revolution is verboten in official China. The bureaucracy and capitalist elements were permanently scarred by this experience.  Hui himself sympathizes with aspects of it, and so puts himself outside this consensus.  He clearly understands that ‘voting’ is not a sufficient form of democratic involvement, but larger structures need to be involved.  The cultural revolution now plays much the same role in China as Stalin plays in the U.S. – an automatic shutoff to debate about socialism.

The Chinese took note of the cataclysmic version of capitalist privatization that the Russians and others in east and central Europe went through, and were determined not to go that route.  They also noted the disastrous role that the 1990s Asian financial crisis brought to those economies, as capital fled overnight from Asian countries, resulting in a collapse in their finances, and resolved to have some controls on capital.  Hui observes that the 1989 Tienanmen events actually predated the collapse of the decayed workers states across eastern Europe, and might have helped propel them. 

Hui describes the ‘Tiananmen’ movement – which was a national movement - as involving students, a wing of government bureaucrats and propagandists, ‘intellectuals,’ neo-liberal capitalists and proletarians and farmers.  The various class strata each emphasized different aspects of ‘democracy’ – some wanting more freedom for capital and some more freedom for labor.   Hui notes that the precise state of the troubled Chinese economy at that moment had an effect on the working classes, and actually propelled Tiananmen into being.  It was not some ethereal event played out only in the realm of ideas, as portrayed in the press.  As in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland and Solidarnosc in 1980, this event also had a dual character.  I would mention that the concept of ‘intellectuals’ does not exist in the U.S.  We have either paid professors or paid think-tank members, and not much else.  Being paid inhibits their actual 'intellectualism' as they are in the orbit of whatever institution is paying the bills - in spite of 'academic freedom.' Hui  believes that any link between 'intellectuals' in China and the masses has been broken.  

Hui has great chapters on the ideas of ‘modernity’ and ‘developmentalism’ which infuse many growing capitalist areas across the world, and especially China.  While not clearly connecting them to capitalist mechanisms like advertising, planned obsolescence and profiteering, he asserts that ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ are false without taking the needs or control of the majority of the population into account.  As he says, “The modernity of the elites is primarily …one… in which they play the heroes of history.”  He also explores the goal of all neo-liberal policies – the de-politicization of society.  Politics in China is to be made invisible, and not desirable for people to be involved in.  It becomes an automatic process, above the heads of most everyone.  Commercialism is its replacement.  Americans are very familiar with this process – starting from the dull adage that one cannot talk about politics, sex or religion in mixed company.  (These are almost the only topics to talk about!)  Cultural figures who are left-political suddenly become invisible.  Take Russell Brand’s recent turn to the left after leaving pop princess Katy Perry, and his subsequent invisibility on American talk shows. 

De-politicization is at the heart of what Americans now face, and Hui has done a good job of showing it as essential to the functioning of neo-liberalism.  The inability of people to conceive of having power or a role outside their own small family or individual self, or their tiny job, and being relegated to bystanders ‘watching the news’ is at the heart of the problem.  As Hui, and every leftist understands, it is when the population becomes engaged in social life that change happens.  This is what the present power systems will do everything to prevent.

(Other reviews on China include a Monthly Review on Bo Xilai by Yeuzhi Zhao and the "Rise of China" by Minq Li.  Use blog search box, upper left.)

And I bought it at Waterstones, in Bloomsbury, London, UK.
Red Frog
July 12, 2014

Monday, July 7, 2014

Nothingism

ART is DEAD

First God died, now this.  What to do?  The London Tate Modern museum is a perfect example of how various forms of  Western ‘post-modernism’ – i.e. minimalism, ‘found’ objects, random agglomerations, quirky ideas, shock or grotesque art, performance ‘art,’ ruined art, shaky black and white films, the absence of people or representational reality - replaced the art movements of most of the 19th & 20th century.  Post 1914 and World War I, art changed forever in European society, as the high noon of bourgeois art – Impressionism – came to a crashing halt.  Impressionism was the apex of the use of color, the brandishing of light and shadow, the freedom of brushstrokes, the rule of nature and ‘peace’ – all creating an airy, optimistic, enjoyable atmosphere. As Piketty observed, this was also a high point of inequality and wealth.

Then came WW I, which punctured the bourgeois equilibrium.  Constructivism, cubism, surrealism, dada, protest art, socialist realism and futurism emerged from that tragedy, which continued through the world Depression and into WW II.  Even today, a visit to the art galleries of Berlin shows the effect World War II still has on Germany.  It took years after WW II for art to regain a foothold as American regionalist art, then New York ‘pop’and ‘op’ art, poster art, and various forms of abstract art.  Today that smaller burst of optimism in art has now ended in various forms of post-modernism.  An ash-tray on a stool, anyone? 

Confirmation of this came with visits to another gallery in the London area.   Outside the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park are two boulders balancing on each other, paid for by the gallery.  As anyone who has hiked knows, nature can also put two boulders on top of each other – and create magnificent ‘art’ pieces without trouble.  Yet the gallery paid two ‘artists’ for these two boulders to be placed on top of each other – in effect doing what nature does for free in certain places.  The question you ask, is ‘who needs artists and art like this?’  In fact, does this actually exist?

Inside the Serpentine was an ‘art performance’ by a world-famous Serbian, Marina Abramovich, who essentially stares at and whispers to people who come into white but quiet rooms.  She had been doing this for 18 days for 8 hours a day, the poor soul.  The ‘art’ consists of visitors (who have removed their electronic devices and watches) standing or sitting with sound-blocking headphones on, closing their eyes and/or putting on blindfolds, and perhaps walking a floor at least 7 times.  This is to ‘center’ you and make you aware of yourself and others. This is based on yoga ‘mindfulness’ practice.  A friend talked to Ms. Abramovich for a time, asking her how she could put up with it for so many days.  Abramovich said that she was somewhat surprised ‘people took it so seriously.’   My friend asked why a form of meditative yoga was now art, and Abramovich had no real answer.

So what we have here is a well-paid person basically pretending yoga is art.  “Art’ has disappeared, and so has the artist, except as a practitioner of a performance deception.  Obviously tricks like this will not fool enough people enough of the time.  Instead the BBC described to my mind the next phase of ‘optimistic’ art – electronic arts of various types – which they covered in a new show in London.  Participants hook themselves up to electronic sensors and make images move the way their bodies move.  Electronic images of various types pulse on big screens, much as screen savers and algorithms produce images on your little computer screen.  Lights beam down on objects or visitors, creating shadows or spotlighting the individual under it.  And so on.  Colorful, busy, self-referential, simplistic, decorative, hip and ‘modern’ – everything you could want in a society dominated by commercialism.  Lady Gaga is the supposed blend of this ‘art’ and pop – the new Andy Warhol.  Yet without the brushes, just the clothing, the surface but not the body.  

Don't get me wrong, I actually have a piece of computer art in my house.

The antidote to these kinds of easily commercial art is living outside the galleries and the curators of museums, though it too is moving into them.  “Street Art,’ which is the sophisticated version of ‘graffiti,’ has come to London, especially Shoreditch in the east.  Similarly in Berlin the remnants of the old ‘Wall’ are now covered with panels from street artists all over the world.  This is also happening in New York.  Yet London is its center, perhaps mainly because London money was smart enough to see the value of this kind of art quickly, and also because a secretive anarchist street painter named Banksy moved there from Bristol, England.   

Street art is an extension of Mexican muralism, but more temporary.  Murals are nearly always painted with permission, while street art can be added to by other artists, covered up by landlords or commercial posters, or destroyed by angry people or by souvenir hunters – or it can be painted with permission as well, even very high up on a 4 story building. It is not commissioned by anyone. Shoreditch around Brick Lane and Hackney Wick are the centers of street art in London. 

Banksy made street art, and he made it political and anti-authoritarian, using ‘actions’ to publicize himself.  His first show was outside the back of a van full of his paintings, which he stopped in the middle of a narrow street to serve free beer, which attracted a quick crowd in crowded London.  The cops showed up because he had stopped traffic.  His stencil paintings make fun of authority, cops, war, capitalist governments, corporations, poverty and systemic ills. In New York one day while on a residency, he sold his paintings anonymously in Central Park for cheap, and few bought them.  Yet when they are labelled ‘Banksy’s” they now sell for massive amounts. This act showed that ‘art’ now is nothing but another form of commercial branding.  New York has smartly covered each Banksy work as it came up on the streets with plexiglass, to protect it from being destroyed. 

Street art is free, fluid and is getting more widespread – done by artists from all over the world.  Some is sculpture crafted to walls or poles.  Some duplicates Soviet revolutionary propaganda.  Here at Mayday, we had a stencil of a black kid with an AK-47 stenciled to our brick wall in 2 colors, saying 'Lets Riot."  It lasted for 3 years.  We think the city 'graffiti patrol' patriotically cleaned it off.  An American street artist, Shepard Fairey, did the “Hope” poster that was adopted by the Obama campaign, and whose supporters sticker his images on light poles everywhere in the world.  But like anything else, now non-political decorators are moving in (even a Hare Krishna), and the art is moving into the galleries due to the obvious talent. Fairey himself is no radical obviously, as his work about Obama shows. 

Regular art movements are dead and empty, lacking excitement and instead provoking laughter.  Nothingism is their moniker.  The only artistic life that rises above decoration now comes from what I call ‘critical art,’ which reflects the future, from the lower classes, ethnic minorities, from third-world or second-world nations.  It comes from areas outside commercialism, outside the ‘first’ world and outside the bourgeois power structure. Street art is their herald.

(Mayday Books carries Banksy's work in two picture books, Vol I & II.)

Red Frog
July 7, 2014

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Scenes From The End Of The World

"Last Train to the Zona Verde,” by Paul Theroux, 2013

Theroux confirms that Africa is the home to the most ghettoized cities in the world.  Vast conglomerations of shantytowns in each country surround the centers, with isolated pockets of wealth behind gates.  Rural areas of poverty where villagers eke out a living, as hunter-gatherer lifestyles are dead.  Theroux taught for 6 years as a teacher in Malawi, then took a famous trip from Cairo to Capetown in his book of 10 years ago – “Dark Star Safari.” He now attempts to complete the circle by going from Capetown to Timbuktu in sub-Saharan Africa, up the west coast of Africa.  At 70 years-old this lone and intrepid white traveller wants to find out what has happened in Africa since his last trip.

It’s not good.  He quits.  Travel books are supposed to be triumphant stories of new information and the overcoming of obstacles.  They are not supposed to end in frustration and misery.  Theroux travels from a luxury hotel in Capetown to the chaos and poverty of Luanda, Angola.  Three of the people he meets along the way die.  The “Bushman” of the Kalahari put on a show for him, pretending to be hunting in native regalia, then don their regular torn t-shirts afterwards.  Lying ahead of him if he leaves Angola is the Congo of no roads and warlords.  Above that is the Nigeria of Boko Harum and violence.  Above that is the Islamist rebellion in Mali.   He quits by answering the question, “Why am I here?”

Theroux is not really political but he is an honest observer.  But all ‘honest observers’ also harbour inbred thoughts.  He is dour about the Cuban intervention in Angola against South Africa and UNITA.  He somewhat resents the landless blacks of Zimbabwe.  He labels as ‘racism’ many anti-white feelings.  His view of the Chinese work in Africa is more negative than the work of the ‘good whites’ of helpful liberalism.  Yet he also pitilessly sees the crookness of so many African governments, which are mostly kleptocracies.  Angola makes millions a day on oil and diamonds, and sits in a vast fertile country – yet almost none of the money trickles down from the international firms and the permanent government bureaucrats to the people, who live in squalor.  He also is aware of the ‘hooked’ value of international capitalist aid, which is sometimes used properly, but more often than not is a neo-liberal placebo and useless, or simply stolen.  He makes fun of Western ‘conferences’ that are supposed to ‘help Africa’ or fake emissaries of hope like Bono and Angelina Jolie.  He hates seeing animals controlled or penned up in zoos, and prefers what few remain to run wild.  Almost none are left in Angola – all killed for food or in the wars.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
Theroux is not a fan of cities and values the natural wonders of Africa, including its wildlife, vegetation and its village life.  This is the ‘old’ Africa, which is dying as the cities grow, and climate change brings drought, or capital brings large expropriating  farms and dams.  (see review of “The New Colonialism,” below.  Use search box in upper left.) In one contradictory chapter, he visits a friend who runs a safari 'elephant riding' camp for very rich Westerners.  They sit on the verandas sipping tea while watching the elephants in the bush - who are then hobbled and forced to shoulder these wealthy fleas.  Theroux admires his friend who runs the camp, yet can't accept the chaining of the elephants for the tourists.

Theroux visits the squatter townships around Capetown, and except for one township, concludes that conditions have gotten worse since the end of apartheid for the people that are flooding into the camps.  He discourses on poverty tourism, where Western tourists in South Africa are taken on bus rides to observe the misery in the townships, containing ‘museums’ of labour squalor that resemble the conditions outside.  Apartheid was a vast labour control system, after all.  He travels to Namibia and, except for the Germanic  and Dutch cleanliness of Windhoek town, above the ‘red line’ bisecting the country lies a realm of rural isolation and depression.   Everyone there is afraid of Angola, which lived through 30 years of bloody war against South Africa and then the warlord Jonas Saivimbi.  This war included one battle at Cuito Cuanavale in which 50,000 Angolans, Cubans and South Africans died – the ‘Stalingrad of Angola.’  Rusted tanks still litter the countryside and mines explode, maiming and killing hundreds a year. 

Theroux takes the broken down cars, the rickety buses, eats the fly-covered food, puts up with insults, shoving and menace, the theft of his credit card (although who uses a credit card in these conditions...) the noise, ignorance and death of this trip, and decides to quit before he too lies moribund in some shanty alley – a dystopian reality that overwhelms him.  As he alleges, he is not a chronicler of the end of time. 

Present Africa is a result of the impact of world capitalism.  It has become the ‘ghetto’ of the world. It is a bleeding ‘zona verde’ from which capital extracts oil, minerals, food and cheap labour like a syringe, while leaving the remainder – not so different for now than the colonialisms of old. 

Red Frog
July 2, 2014

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Workers of All Lands Unite

Left in London

Tourism is a not always about  beer and pasta or museums.  In London, with its long history of capitalism and labor, there are other things to investigate.  A few days ago, Russell Brand stood before a crowd of 50,000 anti-austerity campaigners in Trafalgar Square and called for a ‘peaceful revolution.’   In fact, it is difficult to be in London for any period of time without running into something political.  Protesters drinking bad English beer in the Albany pub notified us that rallies were going on in Trafalgar. 

Or you could drink in the pubs that Orwell frequented – the Dog & Duck or the Newman Arms.  He must have drunk as much as Hemingway.  By chance, drop into an art gallery in the Brick Lane area, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, and see a free show of 40 years of protest photography and film by Chris Marker.  Pictures of Che’, filmed speeches by Fidel play on the wall to curious Millenials.  Brick Lane is also host to Pathfinder Books, upstairs from a bar, whose aging comrades were waiting for their leaders to return from Oberlin.  I told them the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S. almost never collaborates with the any other groups – they are even absent from the anniversary planning of the 1934 Teamster strikes in Minneapolis.  Strikes they led at the time.  The two old comrades could not process the information and instead tried to sell me a very nice Pathfinder paperback.  

Or journey to the theatre environs.  The Young Vic staged a play by an exiled Bylorussian troupe, called “Red Forest” after the reddened trees of Chernobyl.  The play tracks, in a clichéd way, miseries around the world – the tsunami in Japan, polluted rivers in Brazil, Native Americans deprived of their land, the meltdown at Chernobyl, all through the narrative of an African refugee woman trying to get into Europe through Morocco.   Of course, these young actors had no solution but the appearance of two white buffalos as symbols of ‘hope.’  Or the dark farce, “A Small Family Business” at the National Theater that highlights the role of greed in leading a small capitalist family, who owned a furniture firm, from conventional morality to murder and drug running.  Must keep the Porsche, stereo component system and yacht in order!

The Clerkenwell area of London was at one time outside the walls of the City, and for that reason attracted rebels like Wat Tyler, the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Muddlers, various Fenians, William Morris’ 20th Century Press and then Vladimir Lenin, who edited Iskra out of the Press building.  It is now the Marx Memorial Library at 37 Clerkenwell Green.  Across the street is the Crown Tavern, where the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party held their 2nd convention, upstairs.  This is where the Bolsheviks became the majority in the party.  Even today, Mayday marches start on Clerkenwell Green.  The library now houses a vast collection of mostly Communist Party materials, as well as the largest library on the Spanish Civil War in English and some colourful murals.  The genial retired comrade who escorted us around also showed us a chess set by Rodchenko and Lenin’s tiny workroom.

Class issues also exist at the Tate Modern art gallery, located on the south bank of the Thames.  A display of revolutionary Soviet posters, some very well-known, are on the same floor as the Picassos and Tanqueys.  A large portrait of Trotsky is in their center.  Dissident Russian architect Brodsky has a display on the second floor of extraordinary 'imagist' architectural designs. On the next floor is a large painting on Vietnam modeled after Guernica. Yet as you go 'up' in the Tate from the crowded lower floors of cubism, constructivism and surrealism, to the upper, more empty floors of abstract, then post modernist, minimalist and 'display' art, you can see the decay of 'western' or 'capitalist' art more clearly, ending in almost completely black or white canvases.  People are absent, not just looking that the art, but 'in' the art.  Realism has been left far behind.  Above that is the gift shop and the 'member' club, and perhaps above that, the display of 'Nothingist' art.  An empty floor.  

The June 30 and July 2nd 2014 London Evening Standard, a widely-read Tube newspaper,with advertising from the real estate industry, had these two stories about London being the "Hunger Games" capital of the UK.  London is far ahead of every other city in the UK in terms of wealth and jobs.  What mainstream paper in the U.S. would even mention that New York or San Francisco were the 'Hunger Games' capitals of the U.S.?  None.
Lying just north of the main part of London is Highgate Cemetery, which you can reach by a Zone 2 pass on the Underground to Archway, then a short bus ride up the hill to Waterlow Park.  Walk west through the park to the southwest corner and you will come to Highgate Cemetery, now taken care of by a Trust.  Located there is the massive grave marker for one of the founders of communism, Karl Marx, buried with his wife and other family members.  This marker was commissioned by the British Communist Party in a new location, as Marx was originally buried in an unmarked grave a short distance away.  His family had no money for a headstone.  Buried a short distance from his memorial are other Marxists and radicals – leaders of the South African, Iranian & Iraqi Communist Parties; Eric Hobsbawn, the famous English historian, Paul Foot and other Labour Party radicals.  Also in the cemetery is Vanessa Redgrave’s father, the folk singer Bert Jansch, the philosopher Herbert Spencer and the female writer George Elliot, as well as many progressives. 

The quote on the memorial is: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways - the point, however, is to change it.”  Marx is buried in England because he was a refugee from Europe, and because he did his most close work examining  British capitalism, and from it, capitalism in general, in and around London. 

(reviews of books by William Morris and George Orwell, below)
Red Frog
June 26, 2014

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Whereas Our Hero Falls a Bit Flat

"Capital in the 21st Century,” by Thomas Piketty, 2013 - Second Review - Part of Chapter III and Chapter IV

Piketty certainly needs an editor.  After all, repetition must be the god of his understanding.  It is more common in the latter part of his book. Lord!  In this part, he turns his attention to inheritance, the reason for the decrease in inequality from the turn of the century’s astronomical levels, and its prospects for rising further.  The last section is where he advocates solutions that are mostly left social-democratic. What is interesting about his ‘tax on wealth’ solution is that he himself calls it ‘utopian’ – much as actual socialism is also called ‘utopian.’  While various American reformists like Dean Johnson issued laundry lists of legal restraints on capital to criticize Piketty, Piketty in a sense dismisses them all as not getting to the heart of the issue. And that involves an international solution and a more complete solution.  A wealth tax has aspects of a transitional demand.  Which shows that he is actually more perceptive than the left/liberals in the U.S. who peddle a version of ‘humane’ capitalism, tinkered with by purely nationalist means.  His wealth tax would actually have to be applied across regions, then globally, to work.  And that leaves the door open for a Marxist, internationalist approach, as capital cannot cooperate on that level. 

Piketty’s analysis is heavily grounded in history and resonates with our common, though anecdotal, knowledge. For instance, his statistics bear out the fact that the newly-settled U.S. was for a long time more egalitarian than Europe.  He also comments that the South was the most in-egalitarian place in the U.S. during slavery.  This heritage still resonates in the south and accounts for the servility of so many southern whites.   It is also refreshing to read something that is primarily based on non-U.S. statistics – France, England, Germany, Japan and Sweden figuring prominently - with the U.S. only one among many.   

IMPERIALISM

The question of modern overseas earnings from corporations is not addressed.  Determining the amount of international business and profit that a ‘domestic’ company earns from its overseas retail, factory and land holdings, labor force wages and contracts with others would take significant research into each major capitalist firm to establish a pattern.  Piketty says that most profits now accrue from financial and overseas sources because domestic industrial capital is not that profitable, but he does not flesh out this view. Piketty can easily see in 1910 tax records holdings in sovereign debt bonds – Russia was one – and stock shares in clearly colonial companies like the East India Company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Panama or Suez Canals, or land holdings in a tobacco plantation in Jamaica.  Imperialist earnings for the 1% and the 10% are now hidden under the rubric of ‘domestic’ value in firms like GE, Wal-Mart or Archer Daniels Midland.  Shares in India’s Tata corporation will not show the 80 countries they invest in.  Invisibly, capital reaches around the world. So this book does not give us the wealth earned through imperialism, nor is that its intent.  Yet as such, it can delude the reader as to global sources of U.S. and European wealth.

Due to perhaps a lack of good statistics, he – unlike others – thinks the U.S. is more unequal than India or China or other ‘developing’ nations.  However, others have come to the opposite conclusion. He estimates that the upper centiles in poor countries – India, South Africa, Argentina, Columbia, China, Indonesia - control as much as in rich countries.  He doesn’t join the Bloomberg chorus of trying to describe the Chinese rich like the American rich, as China has more capital controls on incoming and outgoing assets, as well as a non-convertible currency.  As such, the Chinese rich are under more controls.

Piketty primarily accounts for the decrease in absolute inequality from the past, 1910 and earlier, due to the institution of progressive taxes – on estates, income, capital gains, interest, dividends, real estate, etc. and even capital in general.  This has resulted in less wealth by the dominant class as a percentage, and more by his oddly-named ‘patrimonial’ middle class – patrimonial meaning ‘inherited from a father.'  When you hear the common refrain of the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle class, the ‘destruction’ of the middle class, this is the modern reflection of this intermediate strata between big capital and the working class that became larger in the 20th century.   

In the 20th century, Piketty’s charts show 1910 to be a high point of wealth, with 1950 as the year wealth began to climb again.  The 1970s are the beginning of the true counter-offensive to return wealth to its normal position, when it starts rising more quickly.  In these sections, his special focus is on inheritance.  Inheritance is a somewhat forbidden topic, as it concerns death and deep family issues.  Americans don’t like to talk about it.  Yet Piketty isn’t hiding the green laundry. At present, pre-death ‘gifts’ to children are almost half of all inheritance.  Due to parents living longer, most inheritance occurs for children in their 50s, not their 30s - which accounts for more focus on ‘careers,’ even for middle-strata children.  One of the signs of growing inequality is that old people die far wealthier than the living, which is the effect of asset compounding.  Or, more pithily, the ‘dead are worth more than the living.’  Piketty here punctures another economics’ class fallacy – the “Modigliani triangle,’ which asserted that all old people save for retirement and die with almost no money.  Many do, of course, but the upper classes certainly do not.  His charts show that inheritance is a chief transmitter of inequality between the classes, and it is rising. 

Piketty’s charts show that inheritance was 25% of national income at the height of inequality in 1910, and that if present trends continue, it will reach that level again.  Using mostly French figures, Piketty estimates that inherited wealth in the 19th and early 20th century was 80-90% of wealth.  Right now it is back up to around 72%.  This, again, is based on returns on capital outstripping actual economic growth.  The latter helps young people, the former older people. 

I am going to list certain points I find interesting, though there is of course much more.  I’m going to quote from the ‘left’ Piketty the most. 

  1. He continues to dwell on literary descriptions of inequality in the 18th and 19th centuries and especially focuses on Balzac’s “Pere Goriot” which has a key scene in which one of the nastier characters, Vautrin, advocating marrying rich instead of working because it is far more profitable.  Of course this reflected the time perfectly.  Even now there is still the ‘gold digger’ as a type, though it should not be limited to women.  “Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Washington Square,’ by Henry James also figure prominently.
  2. The richest 10% in the U.S. accumulated 75% of the growth from 1977-2007 through both income and holdings. 
  3. Artists, actors, athletes make up less than 5% of the top earning group. ‘Super-managers’ as Piketty calls them, make up the rest. 
  4. “The relative power of different social groups often plays a central role in determining what each worker is paid.” Piketty then echoes the Democratic Party line that ‘education and technology are the decisive determinants of wage levels.’ These statements contradict each other.
  5.  “Inequalities at the bottom of the wage distribution have closely followed the evolution of the minimum wage.”  This highlights the importance of the minimum wage. He thinks firms unilaterally setting wages is inefficient and arbitrary. 
  6. While Piketty feels that ‘education’ is key to solving inequality, he cannot track any present relation between growing educations and growing incomes.  He discusses how top schools filter out students from the lower classes; how ‘super-managers’ are compensated, not by productivity, which is hard to measure, or profits, but by a ‘buddy system’ of cronies. He mentions the role of ‘luck’ and the role national differences play in compensation - even though technology and education are similar across many countries.  He concludes that the top levels in society are not earning what they earn due to meritocratic skills in technology or education.  He says it is more ‘hand in the till’ than ‘the invisible hand.’
  7. Wealth is hidden by bad or inadequate tax statistics by national governments.  Obviously in league with capital.  This is especially a problem in countries like India or China. 
  8. Household surveys used by the World Bank etc. to estimate wealth are misleading, as they are based on self-evaluations.
  9. His ‘essential’ point is that the progressive tax policies instituted in the face of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution are why inequality is not as great as the sky-high levels of 1910 Europe.  He especially uses very detailed French records to prove this point – themselves products of the 1789 French Revolution.  (A Revolution which also ended the older son inheriting estates, and instead mandated distributions equally to all heirs.)  The U.S. was a leader in instituting very high, progressive tax rates, especially under Franklin Roosevelt.  This also benefitted the rise of a larger middle class.
  10. “…conditions are ideal for an ‘inheritance society’…”  His estimates are based on the supposition that a revolution will not alter the wealth of the capitalist class.  In 1910, 25% of capital flow was from inheritances, a massive amount.  In France in 1910 the inheritance component of wealth was near 90%.  Now it is 72% and he predicts it will return to over 90%. 
  11. Galbraith wonders where Piketty gets his ‘return on capital’ figure averages of 4-5%.  Well, Piketty has charts of them from his tax studies.
  12. “Clearly, equality of rights and opportunities is not enough to ensure an egalitarian distribution of wealth.”   Equality before the law, of course, is the only ‘equality’ permitted by Democrats.
  13. “Super-managers’ also become ‘petit rentiers’ with their earnings, i.e. accumulating more and more wealth that just earns income.  “The entrepreneur always tends to turn into a rentier.’ 
  14. The wealthy in the 18 & 19th centuries had servants and ‘staff.’  From what I can see, today’s middle class apes them by hiring contractors to do almost everything, eats out to gain a cook, dishwashter and servant, and shuns ‘menial’ labor or repairs. 
  15. He points out that a ‘meritocratic’ society’s philosophy is harder on those who do not do well than a patrimonial society, because the ‘losers’ have themselves to blame. 
  16. “…one-sixth of each age cohort will receive an inheritance larger than the bottom half of the population earns in a lifetime.”
  17. “Rent (of land or housing) is not an imperfection in the market; it is rather the consequence of a ‘pure and perfect’ market for capital…”
  18. “…real democracy and social justice require specific institutions of their own, not just those of the market, and not just parliaments and other formal democratic institutions.” This goes far beyond Democratic Party 'liberalism' or even left-liberalism.
  19. Wealthy people earn more with their money than those with less wealth, due to ‘economies of scale’ for those investors.  I.E. they can take more risk, can hire better experts, can purchase more profitable investments.  As a result, their earnings, as reflected in tax records, university foundation earnings, the Forbes billionaire list, sovereign wealth fund earnings and the global wealth reports on ‘high net-worth individuals’ can be up to 8-10% per year.  Compound these earnings and you will get an idea of what is going on.  Due to this process, Piketty estimates that the top 1000th of the world wealthy could end up owning 60% of global wealth.  “…which is hard to imagine in the framework of existing political institutions unless there is a particularly effective system of repression or an extremely powerful apparatus of persuasion, or perhaps both.”  Welcome to the new world order!
  20. “…the entrepreneurial argument cannot justify all inequalities of wealth…”  See Bill Gates.
  21. “Property sometimes begins with theft.”  Piketty moderately echoing Prodhon's “Property ... is Theft.” Which shows what a moderate fellow Piketty is.
  22. “…the main effect of inflation is not to reduce the average return on capital but to redistribute it.”  Piketty points out that inflation hurts the less wealthy and benefits the more wealthy, redistributing money upwards.
  23. Saudi Arabia buys low-earning U.S. government bonds in exchange for (military) protection.
  24. “… petroleum rents might well enable the oil states to buy the rest of the planet…and to live on the rents of their accumulated capital.”
  25. Figures on the global balance of payments is negative, when it should be perfectly equal.  Piketty thinks the best answer as to what happened was that the hidden assets are in tax havens.  (Duh!) This ‘dark wealth’ amounts to nearly 10% of global GDP.
  26. “…the upper classes instinctively abandoned idleness and invented meritocracy lest universal suffrage deprived them of everything they owned.”

Piketty marshals his arguments for a ‘global wealth tax’ by first calling for economic and financial transparency as absolutely necessary to understand what is going on.  Which is also the first demand in the Transitional Program of the 4th International – simplified as “Open the Books!”  Hiding income in tax havens or fake entities, bad or incomplete statistics, fake prospectuses or accounting reviews, non-cooperation across nations - all help the capitalists hide their wealth.  He also recommends increased spending on colleges, to allow other classes than the rich get good educations.  In his disquisition he discusses the increased role of the state in the financial system.  To him the three pillars of the ‘social’ capitalist state that developed in the 20th century were based on health, education and social security/pensions.  The older role of the state – called ‘regalian’ in his terminology, which I think is incorrect – was limited to police, courts, army, foreign affairs and some administration.  This is the conservative doctrine of the state.  He does not think this ‘leap’ towards a greater ‘social’ capitalist state will be repeated – unlike the sentiments of many left-liberals, who are nostaligic for the Rosevelts. 

Piketty sees this ‘global wealth tax’ as the only way to really undermine inequality, as the issue is now international, not national.  A tax on oil proceeds would especially affect the autocratic rulers of the petro-states.  Piketty feels that regulations of capital flows can impede the process, but do not actually address the fundamental problem.  He insists that it is fairer than the present ‘real estate,’ income and consumption taxes because it gets at the hidden assets of the wealthy.  As it is, 'wealth' per se is not taxed in hardly any countries.  Piketty also thinks that labor migration can even out inequalities.  Yet this dovetails with capital’s need for fluid labor that can easily cross borders.  This does not change the rulers of either the country arrived at or the country left.  In fact it probably just makes them both wealthier.  Public debt can be reduced through austerity, inflation or a capital tax, and the latter to him is the best for the working classes.

Piketty acknowledges that a ‘global wealth tax’ still recognizes the capitalist system and the market, and he thinks this ‘compromise’ makes it desirable.  That was his explanation for the success of progressive income taxes initially.  Even the right-wing agreed with them at that time!  Prior to 1910 taxes were almost nil on any wealth.  Of course, these taxes were initiated under the shadow of labor rebellions, revolutions and strikes around the world.  Paying for WW I was also a necessity.  In essence Piketty claims this is the only way to save capitalism, as his book is peppered with warnings about its possible overturn because of inequality.  Marxists solved the problem of inequality in a ‘logically consistent’ way, in his phrase, but he doesn’t want to go that way.  So he’s picking the more ‘illogical’ method.  He calls for a ‘democratic control of capital’ which is a contradiction in terms, but says there is no other solution.  Capital, after all, is based on the exploitation of the majority of people.  The ‘democratic control of capital’ would actually mean its abolition. 

Red Frog
June 19, 2014