Saturday, March 17, 2018

Dressed for Distress

“Dressed Up For a Riot – Misadventures in Putin’s Moscow,” by Michael Idov, 2018

This journalistic memoir by a New-York centric author and editor is by turns funny, self-aware, perceptive and politically clueless.  As they say, why do partially blind politics happen to ‘smart’ people?

Idov is a middle-class writer who brings the strengths and weaknesses of that class position to his writing.  He grew up in Riga, Latvia, learned Russian, then left with his parents to live in the U.S.  He still had a jones for Russian rock and roll and wrote a novel that few read except the people that count.  Through it he got a job as the editor of GQ Russia – an upscale fashion magazine catering to wealthy Russians, especially in Moscow.  Conde Nast publishes GQ, Vanity Fair and Glamour and its pages are beholden to ads for over-priced couture from Gucci, Prada, expensive watches and expensive liquor.  And the joke is, he doesn’t even dress that well. 

GQ Russia - Soccer, Fashion & Manliness

Idov arrives in Moscow in late 2011, during the height of what he calls demonstrations by the ‘new Decembrists” against the Putin regime. That designation is perhaps more true than he knows. In December 2011 a large Facebook-organized demo in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square happened, with slogans opposing corruption, censorship and electoral fraud by the Putin government.  This culminated in a 100,000 strong demonstration in Moscow’s Sakharov Square against the government, the largest demonstration in Russia in many years.  These December demonstrations were organized by the sons and daughters of notables in the Moscow intelligentsia and cultural milieu.  This is where Alexei Navalny, a lawyer by training, first made a name for himself.  Idov details how, over time, the Putin government responded with various levels of repression, jailings and deaths.

Idov spends about two and a half years in Moscow editing GQ, first attempting to ingratiate himself with the opposition to Putin and Medvedev’s United Russia party.  But since he edited a glossy upscale magazine dominated by advertisers, no matter how many critical and clever pieces he ran, he eventually became distanced from the isolated and ultimately cynical middle-class rebels of Moscow.  At one point, he even raised funds for jailed members of Greenpeace, and that still wasn’t sufficient.  He tried to make GQ face Russia, using Russian writers, pictures and topics instead of being a wealthy memo from a glorified New York.  Idov finds out that the ‘opposition’ so despise Russia’s situation that they mostly yearn for London and New York, not Moscow or St. Petersburg.  Many became exiles later, both because of government repression and Russian economic hard times due to the fall in the value of the ruble and oil prices.  Many of their magazines and internet sites closed or were closed.

The book is full of Russian cultural name-dropping, rappers and ridiculous figures.  Idov ultimately becomes a celebrity himself (the Russian-American Jewish editor slot…) and goes to parties, hobnobs with other celebrities and meets some of Russia’s major cultural figures on both sides of the Putin fence.  Then he gets to work on what he is really good at – TV scripts for various Russian-language productions that are on a higher cultural level than most Russian TV.  One is ‘Londongrad,’ about Russians in London and another, ‘Rushkin,’ that seems to be a copy of his own life in Moscow.  At a certain point he can no longer put up with the contradictions at GQ Russia and gets hired to work on some terrible Conde Nast magazine in Azerbaijan connected to the Azeri dictator’s daughter. (Really?!)  He now lives in Berlin and realizes New York is not the center of the world.

Idov actually believes that the U.S. and NATO had no role in the anti-Russian coup in the Ukraine, in spite of the large amount of documentation which contravenes that position… (can you say 'Victoria Nuland'?) (

The coup basically replaced an elected pro-Russian billionaire oligarch with an unelected pro-EU/US oligarch hostile to Russia and Russians.  Or that the involvement of Right Sector and other Ukrainian fascists in Maiden Square was peripheral, and their role in western Ukraine still is.  He toes the U.S. government line in thinking the overwhelming secession vote of the heavily Russian-populated Crimea was wrong  Or that the Donetsk and Luhansk rebels are evil as they fight those very same fascist militias.  After all, is there a problem with EU missiles on the Russian border? He calls anyone to the left of conventional 'liberal' Democrats the ‘tinhat left.’  He lumps in Trotskyists with monarchists and religious zealots.  But then he also realizes there might be a touch of Russiaphobia in the U.S.  Do you think?

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) is barely mentioned, except as a wimpy fake opposition to Putin.  Yet the CPRF nearly won the 1996 election and might have really won except for massive U.S. ‘meddling’ to support Boris Yeltsin. (Speaking of ‘election meddling,’ academic statistics by Don Levin show the U.S. has interfered in 81 foreign elections since 1946…) The CP’s elderly leadership voted for the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, which shows how bureaucratic and weak it had become.  But recently younger people are trying to turn it into a real working-class opposition to Putin, not a ‘loyal opposition.’  The CPRF is still the second largest party in Russia, bigger than Navalny’s organization the Progress Party by far.  However, their presidential candidate, Pavel Grudinin, is a millionaire, so they have not had any effect at the top of the party.  The only workers Idov must have met are bin cleaners, bartenders, waitresses and chauffeurs in his travels around Russia, which is typical. 
Punk, Feminist, Atheist, Anarchist

Idov focuses, like most of the bourgeois press, on the trial and jailing of Pussy Riot in 2012.  (Does the hypocritical bourgeois press like punks in the 'west'?  No...) Given his love of Russian rock and roll, this makes a certain cultural sense for him.  But their 45 second performance in one of Moscow’s Orthodox cathedrals is not the biggest issue in Russia, even though the Russian government also tried to make it so.  Putin is certainly opposed to atheist feminist anarchism, and many reactionary anti-gay laws and censorship laws have now been passed, as well as bans on foreign adoptions and EU food.  But Pussy Riot is only the tip of the iceberg.  What Idov could have looked at was also how this connects with the status of ordinary Russians, unions, organizations and political parties outside the approved “Western” circle.  Perhaps how the Russian economic crisis affected normal Russians after the drop in oil prices.

Because after all, Putin and Medvedev are capitalists, even though they now parade around as the alt-right version of ‘strongmen’ in the tradition of the Czars and Stalin.  Idov and Putin both agree on propping up capital.  One supports an authoritarian nationalist version of capital, with significant state involvement enriching certain individuals and the other supports a liberal imperialist version centered around identity, enriching certain individuals.  There are ‘oligarchs’ in both systems, but one is still covered by a better and thicker veneer of democracy, though fading. The multi-billionaires in the U.S. have another name too: “oligopolists.’ Idov pointed out that Medvedev made some noises towards a more liberal democracy, which fooled some members of the ‘new Decembrists.’   But after Putin’s crackdown on dissent, no longer.

Given Idov is a first-person journalist, his travels through Moscow society have the ring of truth. But if you look at history, something else rings a bell.  The December 1825 revolt of Russian army officers against the new Czar Nicholas I took place in St. Petersburg.  It occurred on Peters Square in front of St. Issac’s Cathedral on the southern bank of the Neva, where the ‘bronze horseman’ statue of Peter the Great now sits.   Yet these Decembrists were impotent to bring about an overthrow or an adjustment in the monarchy without the involvement of the then small St. Petersburg working class and the vast Russian peasantry.   Sound familiar?

Other books reviewed below on Russia:  “Absurdistan,” “Russia, Snowden, Stoli and the Gay Movement,” “Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” “US/EU Meddling Attempts to Make Ukrainians Pawns” and others.  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I got it at the Athens, GA, USA library!

Red Frog

March 16, 2018

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

To be an "American" 'Under God"

Your New Bosses, ah, "Fellow Citizens."

The Citizenship Test:

Here are some lowlights from the test booklet to become a naturalized U.S. citizen.  It has two sections – civic and historical.  It asks about Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony and various Native American tribes and also mentions slavery.  But it also asks these questions:

  1. What is the economic system in the United States?  Answers:  ‘Capitalist economy’ or ‘market economy.’ 
    Making it clear.

  1. What are two major political parties in the United States?  Answer:  ‘Democratic and Republican.’ 
    Making it clear.

  1. What are two rights of everyone living in the United States?  Answers include ‘the right to bear arms.’ 
    Pure and simple, no militia, no state qualifiers on the right to bear arms.  No mention that this interpretation is based on subsequent court decisions.

  1. What is one promise you make when you become a United States citizen?  Answers include ‘be loyal to the United States,’ ‘defend the Constitution and laws of the United States’ and ‘serve in the U.S. military, if asked.’ 
    A lot of us are in trouble.

  1. There is no ‘mother of our country,’ only a ‘father.’  Washington!  Happy International Women’s Day!
  2. Name one problem that led to the Civil War.  Answers include ‘states’ rights.’ 
    Which was the Confederate rationale…

  1. What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?  Answers include ‘serve on a jury’ and ‘vote in a federal election.’ 
    You can be cited for contempt of court by refusing to serve on a jury, but at least half the population would be in trouble if they prosecuted people for not voting.

  1. It also asks about how many wars the U.S. was involved in in the 19th Century and the 20th Century.  Answers are ‘4’ wars and ‘6’ wars respectively. 
    Some wars are not mentioned, including Afghanistan.  Preparing you for the 21st century, where we may go to 8 wars…! 
    Anyway, good luck!
    Red Frog
    March 14, 2018

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Profit Bias

“The Long Depression – How it Happened, Why it Happened and What Happens Next,” by Michael Roberts, 2016

While you might be confused by the title as I was, this book is actually a breakthrough in Marxist economics.  Robert’s contends that the present period of lowered stagnation is really a ‘depression.’  He theorizes that in its length, lower employment and growth and lack of productive profitability it marks itself as similar to the depressions of the 1930s and the 1870s.  But this is not the central point of the book.  In the process of looking at the cycles of capitalist prosperity, Roberts calmly analyses the origins of capital’s crises from various political perspectives – Keynesian, Austrian, neo-classical, monetarist, post-Keynesian and neo-Marxist, giving a reader a real panorama of almost every theory.
The Profit Bias We Live in Everyday

Robert’s breakthrough is showing how the falling rate of profit internal to capitalist production is key to understanding the recessions and depressions that form the cycles of capital.  The ‘tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ was developed by Marx in Capital , Vol. 3, Theories of Surplus Value and the Grundrisse.  It is based on the interplay of variable and constant capital, i.e. between the rate of extraction of surplus value from workers (variable) and the value of machinery, software, buildings, etc. necessary to make things (constant/fixed).  Marx posited that an increase in the latter would force the profit rate down, as profit comes from the exploitation of labor only.  The formula is “R (rate of profit) = S (surplus value) / C (constant capital) + V (variable capital.)

For most leftist activists, understanding that profit is key to understanding capitalism is second nature.  However, some Marxists, such as Paul Sweezy of the Monthly Review school, have rejected Marx’s understanding on this issue. Some think recessions or depressions are caused by ‘under-consumption’ or over-production. Marx called ‘under-consumptionism’ a tautology – a tautology which Keynes based most of his theory on.  This book puts reality back together, with hard data on profit rates over time, including absolutely revealing charts.   Robert’s figures from the OCED, WTO, NBER, BEA, Federal Reserve, other Marxist economists, as well as his own calculations, show the intimate relationship between rising or falling profit rates and the reverse image of falling or rising increases in constant capital.

Roberts is an economist that worked in the capitalist banking and securities industry for 30 years.  Unlike Tony Norfield, he has figured out how to glean data on profit rates (and even surplus value rates) for all 3 depressions that affected the U.S.  Nor is he alone in this ability, as he cites a number of other Marxists like Minq Li who have done similar research.  He has rates for individual countries in the EU before and after the 2008 crash, data regarding the long Japanese stagnation and data for the BRICS too - Brazil, South Africa and India.  Roberts also analyses China, which is an exception to the rule.  Its mixed economy is dominated by the state, and does not behave in the same manner as fully capitalist economies.  Roberts points out that a recent World Bank report is clear China is not capitalist, though the law of value still operates in parts of the Chinese economy.  This is why China is always being counseled by capitalist economists to engage in ‘more privatization’ or scolded for having a Communist Party that controls the economy.

Roberts compares the explanations of capital’s 3 depression crises by other economic schools and describes how they fall short.   For instance, Keynesianism didn’t work even in the 1930s in the U.S., a depression which ended through a government takeover of the economy and war-spending.  Nor has it worked on Japan’s stagnation when it has been tried.  It was dropped by the U.S. ruling class in the 1970s due to dropping profit rates and replaced with neo-liberalism, which drove rates up for a time.  Roberts shows how financial crises can ‘trigger’ recessions or depressions, but are not the underlying cause.  Under-consumption and over-production are results, not causes of capitalist economic downturns.  Under-investment is a result of lack of profits, not a cause.  Excessive debt or credit is a result of lack of profits from production, not the reverse. Excessive saving is a result of lack of opportunities to profit. Financialization and financial crises are brought about by falling profits in the productive sector of the economy.  Inequality is a result of the search after profits, not a cause of the crisis. And so on.  Many crisis theories reverse the actual process, finding results are really causes, or external shocks dominate.  Of course, results can intensify any crisis.

In essence, the cause of destructive capitalist depressions and recessions is embedded within the profit system.  It is basically a reflection of dialectics on the economic level.                                                                                                            

Roberts understands, as do many leftist activists, that there are ‘counter-tendencies’ to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.  Proletarians see these issues everyday.  Without seriously 1. increasing the rate of exploitation of workers or  2. imposing austerity and privatization on the proletariat or 3. lowering the amount of constant capital needed or 4. bringing in cheap imports or technology or 5. having a larger reserve army of labor or 6. destroying capital in various ways (war!), it cannot regain its prior level of profitability.  So it tries all of these, as we have seen – though Roberts barely mentions war.  When these counter-tendencies eventually weaken, as Marx said they would, it results in situations like the present economic stagnation or worse.  Stagnation or ‘secular stagnation’ is something recognized by Monthly Review and many Keynesians like the NYT’s Krugman.  Roberts thinks the present lowered, dead-in-the-water world-wide growth situation will continue unless drastic events occur to reignite profitability.

Most present economic analyses point to finance capital as the ‘heart’ of present capital.  Roberts, following Marx, shows that if profits are hard to come by in ‘productive’ capital, then capital switches to a ‘rentier’ form (I.E. the FIRE sector), betting on ‘fictitious capital’ to make a profit instead.  In other words, casino capitalism.  That is exactly what is going on now, as capital attempts to concentrate in the securities markets, making money with money. (M=M+)  Or losing it too, as we’ve seen lately.  But nothing real is actually being created, only digits on a computer screen.

Roberts also analyses the present role of debt.  Corporate debt, followed by government and consumer debt, is at the highest levels in history.  The search for profits drives the expansion of credit … and debt.  Roberts contends the level of corporate cash has been the same for 30 years, but it is now invested differently, like share buybacks.  Any evidence of rising levels of cash in corporate coffers shows the failure to invest in productive enterprise.
Cycles of Capital

The reason we are now hearing endless stories about robots, artificial intelligence and the ‘universal basic income’ is because capital is trying to reduce labor’s share of work, and gain profits temporarily through another round of higher-end automation.   Roberts estimates that every 18-20 years or so, capital must replace their machinery, software and buildings, which is the real essence of capital ‘depreciation’ in the tax code.  Increases in profits and labor productivity from globalization and the first computer hardware and software revolution has stalled, then dropped.  Increasing robotization and AI will increase fixed capital, which will ultimately drive down profits once again.  It is the bind capital is always in. He calls it the ‘capital bias.’

Capital’s progressive nature is its ability to develop technology and improve productivity in the creation of real things.  When that fails, the actual economic mechanism indicates it can be ‘past its use-by date,’ as some leftist economists contend.  Roberts thinks capital can always reignite another profitability cycle after much destruction to regular proletarians and society at large, while he quotes others who say the present world situation regarding growth, the environment and exploitation is ‘endgame.’

Roberts predicts another economic crisis in 2018 per his reading of capitalist cycles, but ‘forecasting’ is always a dangerous business.   He ends the book by tracking capital’s business cycles since the 1800s, all based on the economists that researched them.  Longest is the Krondratiev ‘long wave’ of 50 to 70 years that tracks depressions; shorter waves labeled ‘Kuznets’ based on major construction lasting 18 years;  even shorter cycles named  ‘Juglar’ for recessions every 8 to 10 years; and the smallest cycles called ‘Kitchin,’ which reflect inventory cycles of about 4 years.

Krondratiev was a Russian Marxist who first discerned the ‘long wave’ of capitalist economic development, but with much less data than that available to Roberts.  Marx developed the theory that cycles were connected to the replacement of fixed capital, i.e. depreciation rates.  In effect, Roberts links patterns and sub-patterns that explain capital’s crises over long periods of time.  When the patterns coincide determines what the crisis actually looks like, and how deep it will be.

If you are going to read one book about how capitalism actually works as an economic system, this is it.  It ties the room together!

Other book reviews on this topic:  “The City,” “The Rise of China,” “The Endless Crisis,” “Monopoly Capital,” The Great Financial Crisis,” “Zombie Capitalism,” “J is For Junk Economics,” “Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens” and “Fortunes of Feminism.”

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Happy International Women’s Day!
Clara Zetkin, German Marxist, seconded Luise Zeitz in approving a resolution to establish International Women’s Day at a meeting of the 2nd Socialist International in 1910.

Red Frog

March 8, 2018

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Dispatch from the 'American' South

‘Southern Cultural Nationalism’ and Southern Liberals

I went to a journalism seminar at the University of Georgia (UGA) campus in Athens, Georgia, USA, which was announced in the local alternative weekly The Flagpole as ‘For the Love of the South.”   Yup.  As a cranky Yankee, I had to see what ‘southern’ journalists had to say about their region, because no one ‘up north’ is talking about how they ‘love’ the north.  The panel consisted of editors from the 'Flagpole,’ ‘The Bitter Southerner - Great Stories from the South;’ the ‘Oxford American – A Magazine of the South;’ the NY Times Atlanta bureau and ‘Scalawag – Reckoning with the South;’ along with one member of the journalism faculty at UGA.
The South is Easy to Find

If you pay attention you discover that the ‘south’ is saturated with an obsession about itself as a region, and this does not compare to anything in the north. The reporter from the NY Times brought this up in the panel discussion.  The exception might be the tub-thumpers of New York City, though they never identify with ‘the north,’ only their own city.  The conservatives in ‘the west’ attempt to carve out some kind of identity, but the Pacific Coast states blunt their regionalism.

The South is Everywhere

I went to a fashion show at UGA and cups were handed out that said ‘Stay Southern.’  I’ve never seen a cup like that in Minnesota.  One local Athens rock venue is called ‘the Georgia Theater.” If it were in Minneapolis, we’d laugh at the dullness of the title “Minnesota Theater” as the name of a rock music venue.  Minneapolis’ own tongue-in-cheek outdoor store “Midwest Mountaineering” doesn’t even know that Minnesota is not in the ‘Midwest’ but is actually in the north.  If you go to a music show in Athens where roots, folk or country music are played, you will inevitably hear one or two damn songs about “being born in Kentucky” or Tennessee or some other southern state.   You never or rarely hear Minnesota or Iowa bands yowling about their region or even state.  The Weather Channel, headquartered in Atlanta, refers to the area between the Dakotas and Pennsylvania as ‘the Midwest’ not ‘the north.’ They never call New England ‘the north’ but maybe the north-east and definitely New England.  They never fail to include Georgia in ‘the south’ or at least the ‘south-east.’   This geographic misdirection is rampant, essentially disappearing ‘the north’ as a place.  The 2018 Minneapolis city campaign to re-christen Minnesota ‘The Bold North” during the recent Super Bowl is indicative of the lack of northern regionalism or nationalism.

There is no ‘northern rock’ genre to compare with ‘southern rock.’  There is ‘southern gothic’ as a type of U.S. literature, but nothing of the reverse.  Country music itself is self-consciously based in the south, though it certainly flows into rural areas throughout the country.  There is no ‘northern’ equivalent.   We have the ‘Southern Baptist Convention” but not the northern version.  I could go on, but you see the point.  All of this expresses a smothering southern regional or ‘national’ consciousness, in this case cultural.  Is this basically progressive or reactionary?  I think the latter.
Funny and Symptomatic

The Panel

The speakers on the panel, especially the editor of Scalawag, made brief obligatory nods to ‘racial and class’ problems in the south.  But then they went on to one of their central topics, the stereotypes and misconceptions about the south. They insisted there is a ‘modern south’ now, full of ‘diversity,’ localism, cross-culturalism and pleasantries, incorporating migrants, hip-hop and women.  Great southern food like okra (?), great music, beautiful landscapes and mint juleps!  I like music or fiction artists from the south as much as the next person and the land can certainly be outstanding.  But the subtext of what they were saying is that the ‘new South,’ as inaugurated by the presidency of neo-liberals like Jimmy Carter and later, Bill Clinton, exists and seemingly has little to do with the ‘old one.’  Interestingly, the concept of the 'new south' was first introduced in the 'new south' is nothing new. (Scalawag is headquartered in Durham, North Carolina; the Bitter Southerner in a suburb south of Atlanta; the Oxford American in Little Rock, Arkansas.)   It seems problems are in the past.   But is the ‘new’ south really that new?

Is the South Oppressed?

For instance, is the south as a whole an oppressed region, hence logically responding to oppression with expressions of national or regional defiance?  No, unless you confuse some idiotic northerners making fun of ‘rednecks’ as ‘oppression.’ This is not an expression of the ‘black belt’ or even Appalachia.

Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the oil patch and other centers of capital are scattered throughout the country.  They manage to oppress every single geography and rural area in different ways.  The southern capitalists are centered in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and Charlotte.   The most powerful and right-wing are in Texas, the center of oil and gas corporations.  Many low-quality fast-food chains originate from the south, including the most popular diabetic beverage of all time, Coca-Cola (Atlanta).  Ted Turner’s media empire started in Atlanta and Delta, UPS, Home Depot, AFLAC, The Southern Energy Co. and Suntrust are headquartered there too.  Charlotte is the home to top national financial corporations like Lending Tree, Bank of America and BBT and others like Lowes and Duke Energy.  Miami has American Airlines, Office Depot, Wackenhut and Motorola.  Even partially ruined New Orleans hosts corporations like Entergy and Centurylink.  Wichita, Kansas is home to Koch Industries. The vast majority of U.S. military bases are located in the south.  Many automobile manufacturers moved their plants from the north to the south to get cheaper wages, or came from overseas to do the same.  Its factory chicken industry dominates the country.  It is the last bastion of coal.  It is a powerful sector of the U.S. capitalist class, not some backward bunch of plantation owners living without air-conditioning while watching sharecroppers bringing in the cotton.

And yet, tax revenues flow from mostly northern states to mostly southern states, as part of the currency union that is the U.S.A.

It is not an oppressed region, but its regional working class is the most oppressed in the U.S., as determined by every statistical measure you can name.  Disposable income, poverty-rates, health coverage, under-age pregnancy, unionism, education, literacy, collectivity, life expectancy, workplace safety, pollution, homicides, voter turnout, public benefits, privatization, etc.  Mississippi is at the bottom of the state stack and this affects the black population of that state the most.  Louisiana has the most prisoners per population of any state in the union, with Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Alabama not far behind.  So they sell ‘southern nationalism’ to white workers, as if waving a virtual rebel flag at northerners will solve these problems.  The basic truth is that these problems are also their problems.

Did this panel of journalists mention so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws?  Did they mention the word ‘Republican’ once?  Did they mention the role of fundamentalist religion?  Did they mention the long list of low quality-of-life indicators for the southern population and southern states?  Did they mention the low minimum wages in the south?  Did they mention the modern neo-Confederates?  Not at all.  Did they mention mass incarceration?  Once in passing, by the editor of the Scalawag.  There was a polite hush over specific southern problems.  All evidently to be combated by ‘increasing diversity,’ the all-purpose liberal panacea and also the ostensible goal of many corporate HR departments.  They concluded that the upscale Gun & Garden magazine could do with some diversity, even though most rich white people in the south probably don’t want to look at anyone but their own.

VW Chooses Non-Union
Unions and the South

One person who recognized that there was still a continuing real ‘battle’ in the south was the UGA professor.  And that is exactly it.  To improve the U.S. for the working class, especially black and Latino people who are the most exploited, unions and progressive community organizations have to win the fight in the south – not ignore it.  That was the 1940s program of the AFL-CIO – to organize the south, and it is still absolutely necessary.  As an example, a Caterpillar plant was just re-located to Athens Georgia from Illinois, making small-track bulldozers and excavators, but with a far cheaper workforce due to the absence of a union.

For northern workers, southern ‘right-to-work-for-less’ laws are the Dred Scott laws of modern wage slavery.  Dred Scott was a slave who lived for a time at Fort Snelling in Minnesota, and also in Wisconsin and Illinois with his slave master.  According to an 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision when he sued for his freedom, he was still a slave even though these northern states did not have legal slavery.  This became the basis of the fugitive slave laws, which is why you had to get to Canada to really get away.  As events in Wisconsin show now, these ‘southern’ laws still move up the Mississippi.  And they rob the north of work by enabling plant foreclosures.  Delta Airlines, based in Atlanta, merged with Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines in 2008 and in the process, decertified the Machinists and other unions that had existed at Northwest.  The problem is not just cheap labor in China or Mexico, it is in our own southern-accented ‘maquiladora’ zone, running a race to the bottom.  This mostly middle-class panel did not see fit to address this key issue.

A small union was recently organized on the UGA campus, the “United Workers of Georgia, Local 3265.” They attempted to run an ad on a local radio station, which refused their ad because a union ‘was not consistent with free market principles.’  This is a state campus, so the ability to organize is easier than in the directly capitalist workplaces, but still very difficult.  That is what the low-paid workers of the south face.
Oxford, MS Town Square - Faulkner Land
Shadow of the Civil War

The real issue is that southern regional / national consciousness was based on the agrarian and plantation economy of indebted servitude, then slavery - first white, then black.  This clash of economic systems with a more industrialized north populated by free farmers led to the Civil War.  As noted in the book, “Why the South Lost the Civil War” the south lost primarily because of the failure of this southern nationalism.  As books like “Peoples’ History of the Civil War,” “Guerillas, Unionists and Violence on the Confederate Home Front” and “The Civil War in Florida” all note, non-plantation regions in nearly every southern state resisted secession and opposed the war.

Yet ‘southern nationalism’ still continues, attempting to bind especially white southern workers to white southern capitalists.  And it extends across the whole political and social culture of the south.  It is most strongly seen in the openly racist defense of Confederate monuments or the Confederate battle flag by fascist and alt-right groups.

Politically it is seen in the practices and rhetoric of the present Republican Party, which is strongest in the south, controlling every state.  It is accompanied by the fundamentalist propaganda of the Southern Baptist Convention and the strong celebrations of militarism in southern states (even at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport), especially around the civic religion of college football.  The continuing efforts of the oil, gas and coal industries, along with auto, to demonize unions and mask the effects of global warming (even as it floods the south) are part of the same right-wing assault.  It is coming not just from Wall Street but the resurgent southern capitalists.  Wall Street in fact is in league with them, as it was prior to the Civil War.  Slavery was actually a large part of the northern capitalist class's strategy for profits.  Now the federal government is once again held by the virtual party of the south.  Ironically, the same Supreme Court that criminally ruled on Dred Scott will probably soon rule that paying dues to a union in a union-represented ‘agency’ shop (‘open shop’) is illegal in government workplaces. This will help spread southern anti-unionism nationwide.   The case is “Janus v. AFSCME Council 31.” You want a union, pretty soon you’ll have to escape to Canada.

One Big Happy Southern Family

The southern capitalists have succeeded in their strategy to split southern white workers from the black and Latino working class by claiming that ‘we are all southerners,’ binding lord and vassal together. This ‘rebel’ tactic works for many white male workers, as can be seen in the recent anti-union votes at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee and the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.  This I think is the root of the subservience of southern white workers to their ostensible ‘betters.’  Even small farmers in the south buy into this fable, though corporate farming is pushing them off the land too, as it did to black farmers already.

How does liberal southern cultural nationalism play into this scenario?  From what I can see, it dovetails, as they all embrace the concept of ‘the wonderful south’ in varying degrees.  The fact of the matter is that in every capitalist country, there are regions that are the most benighted.  In the U.S. the ‘south’ is it. Combined and uneven development is essential to capitalist economics and this country is no exception.

The Magazines

The Oxford American is a mostly apolitical cultural and academic journal that styles itself the New Yorker of the south. (Though the New Yorker was never a symbol of the ‘north.)  At one point the editor of the Bitter Southerner sounded like he said that the average income of their supporters was $335K a year, which created a buzz onstage.  When I brought up the term ‘southern cultural nationalism’ to the panel in the short question and answer period, the editor of the Bitter Southerner threatened to semi-humorously come down and ‘shake’ me. Striking a nerve is always entertaining.

Scalawag seems to be the most left in its approach to political issues in the south, mentioning in their most recent issue capitalism and the ‘Trillbilly Workers Party,’ a leftist podcast out of Appalachia.  In one podcast the Trillbillies take right-wing ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ author T.D. Vance apart.  The term ‘scalawag’ was applied to southerners who supported Reconstruction and the post-Civil War Republican Party, so the title is progressive.  The editor returned from the north to the south to ‘reclaim’ the south, as her relatives were part of the mass exodus to the north in the 1920s-1930s.  But you’d never guess that from the presentation - instead the editor wanted the south to be a ‘re-imagined place.’   But what that means is left unimagined.  The Flagpole heroically soldiers on as an alternative weekly based on advertising - making food, drink, music and mild liberal politics its mainstays.  The Bitter Southerner seems more like a high-end lifestyle magazine for educated southerners, which the editor said earns most of its money from sales of T-shirts and coffee mugs (!)   We all know about the NY Times, and it mostly covers hard news like the Florida school shooting.

What would be really progressive is to challenge southern regionalism as an idea, because it stretches across the political spectrum, but is a mainstay of the southern capitalist class and its far-right allies.  Tub thumping of any kind – whether ‘patriotic’ Americanism, southern or ‘western regionalism;’ city boosterism (Babbitt-style), ‘love my state’ mania or football team loyalty – are all crude and divisive geographic perspectives that ignore our potential collective unity as proletarians across all these borders.  Yes, of different places and locales, of different ethnicities and genders, of different national origins or sexualities, of different levels of oppression, but still potentially united as people with the same economic goals.

Besides the civil war books mentioned above that are all reviewed below, other relevant reviews are:  “Hillbilly Elegy,” “White Trash,” Jacobin’s ‘Civil War’ issue, “The New Jim Crow” and “Slavery by Another Name.”  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog, the Cranky Yankee

Athens, GA

March 1, 2018

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Fact And Conservative Fantasy

“Black Panther,” film directed by Ryan Coogler, 2018

This poor film can’t carry the burden placed upon it.  It is to give all 10 year old black boys someone to look up to.  It is to show strong black women capable of incredible combat or technical feats.  It is to change the history and image of Africa and perhaps the world.  It is to finally have many black people in a film.  One excited and clueless reviewer even thought it would spark a ‘revolution.’  

Come on, this is a Disney film.  Disney is the second largest media conglomerate in the world.  Disney owns ABC, ESPN, A&E Networks, Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, the Muppets Studio and 21st Century Fox films.  Their ‘diversity’ strategy is to sell tickets to under-served groups that might go to a science fiction / superhero film but haven’t.  It succeeded wildly, being the highest grossing film in 2018 so far.  This was also the tactic behind ‘Wonder Woman,' another film which will not liberate anyone.

Lowndes County, AL Freedom Organization
In 1965 the Lowndes County Freedom Organization was started under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael and other early Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee activists.  This Alabama county was 80% black but no black people were registered to vote.  Their symbol was a ‘black panther.’  ‘Black Panther’ the comic-book character was conceived in 1966 by two white guys at Marvel comics, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, who were picking up on the ferment of the times.  Later in 1966 the “Black Panther Party for Self-Defense” was created in Oakland, California, to defend black people from police violence.  The Panthers were to the left of 'cultural nationalists' of the time, like Ron Karenga of US, who worshiped Africa and was later exposed as an FBI plant. From this you might be able to tell who the real black panthers are ... and aren’t.

One of the continuing problems of science fiction in the U.S. is that it is based on high technology that accompanies medieval social structures. The ‘Dune’ series is a good example. Black Panther’ follows the same trope.  Here is a king, T’Challa, who has to fight to the possible death for the kingship of Wakanda, in the backdrop of something like Victoria Falls.  Yet this is a film clearly set in the present.  Leadership is given to the best royally-born fighter, it is not based on any kind of democracy except that of personal violence. The clothing worn by the Africans is beautiful and ornate, but reminds one of a tourist or Hollywood conception of cliché’d ‘native dress’ that few wear in present-day Africa.  Though these clothes may be a boon to black cos-play groups in the U.S., they misrepresent modern Africa.  What powers this secret kingdom isolated from the world is ‘vibranium’ – a powerful mineral delivered by a meteor from outer-space.  It provides power, weapons, protection, technology, medicine and much more.  Wakanda is ostensibly a beautiful and peaceful place, a sort of Eden in a conflicted world, with huge skyscrapers, magnetic trains and also grass huts, goats, mountains and rhinoceroses.  The people are seemingly happy in their isolation, a sort of hidden black utopia as yet unmarked by imperialism or colonialism.

The mining of conflict minerals in Congo - Tantalum
Africa right now is full of minerals being exploited by various countries and corporations, and ‘vibranium’ echoes the valuable conflict mineral ‘tantalum,’ refined as ‘coltan,’ which Apple and other companies use in every computer and internet phone.  It is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda by primitive methods, and has brought war and misery to many, while making some rich.  This, I think, is the real African ‘vibranium.’

One black film reviewer said he’d never seen so many black people in a film (there are only 2 white ones in this one).  Odd, because there are many films with nearly all black actors, so you have to wonder what he's looking at.  You can go back to “Shaft” and “Foxy Brown,” “The Color Purple, or more recently any Madea film, the “Friday” stoner comedies, many films by Spike Lee, "Fences" or “Straight Otta Compton” as a few examples.  You might be able to come up with more, but it is not hard. 

Here is the political ‘nut’ of the film.  Most of the fighting occurs between black people!  It is not with the one white villain, Klaue, who is trying to steal some vibranium.  What is that fight about?  Evidently a member of the royal family, N’Jobu, is sent to Oakland, California   N’Jobu wants to use the vibranium to win freedom for black people in the U.S.  Wakanda’s policy is to keep to itself and ignore the plight of billions of black people around the world.  So N’Jobu is killed by T’Challa’s father because he somehow gave the evil white man Klaue some vibranium. (Why he would is unknown…nor is it logical.)  At any rate, N'Jobu's little son Erik, who is re-christened ‘Killmonger’ in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, seeks revenge for the murder.  And also a world-wide revolution against the oppressors of black people.  This would involve using vibranium as a weapon in New York, London and Hong Kong against the oppressors.  So the political heart of the film is a conflict between a-political isolation and later, liberal social work …or black nationalist revolution against oppression.  The ‘bad guy,’ Killmonger, is for the latter, and so are some Wakandan male fighters.

One ally of T’Challa and the moderates is a white nebbish CIA agent, Ross, who helps them combat Killmonger.  So our Panther king is a collaborator with the CIA.  Logically the CIA does not want a revolution against oppression and would prefer social work. They too are trying to get their hands on some vibranium.  So would every capitalist corporation and military in the world.  As we know, the CIA has agents and the military has bases all over Africa now, with JSOC/military attack abilities.  

Which character in the film are they closest to?
T’Challa wins the struggle, with help from the female Wakandan Praetorian guard, the CIA agent and a formerly alienated tribe of Wakandans, the Jabari. The female guards serve as a prop for one man or another through the whole film.  T’Challa spares Killmonger’s life, but Killmonger wants to die like so many other black people have.

The film ends with T’Challa giving a speech to a UN-type body, sounding like a saintly Nelson Mandela, promising to lead the world out of misery through ‘kind’ example and vibranium.  So the Wakandans are coming out of isolation and starting a social-work institution in Oakland.  As we know from the history of South Africa, after ANC leader Mandela's death, Jacob Zuma took over the ANC.  He has just been kicked out of the presidency of South Africa for corruption.  His job has been taken over by Cyril Ramaphosa, who is a former ANC labor leader and now billionaire.  Ramaphosa collaborated with mining companies in South Africa in the Marikana massacre of striking diamond miners in 2012.  So leading by example didn't really happen in South Africa.

Fact and conservative fantasy.  Fact and fiction.  What is clear is that super-hero fantasies quarried by entertainment conglomerates do not deal with the real problems of Africa or black America.  They in fact give reactionary solutions and embrace reactionary ideas.  As in the execrable film “Wonder Woman,” which dresses up fighting Germans in WWI with doing something about the oppressed status of women.  They might be pleasant diversions, temporarily 'empowering' or irritating fakes, but this poor film did not go anywhere near showing a way out.   It in fact is a right-wing movie attacking a more left-wing position, picturing"Killmonger" as an evil nasty person with a few good ideas.  But again, this is Disney.  What do you expect?

Related reviews:  "Black Sails," which is partly about black maroons who escaped slavery and hid up in the mountains of various islands in the Caribbean.   Also re Africa or partly about Africa:  "Last Train to the Zona Verde," "Searching for Sugar Man," "Monsters of the Market," "Famished Road," "The Race for What's Left," "Southern Insurgency" and commentaries on Morocco and FGM.

Athens, GA
Red Frog
February 25, 2018

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Not Black Panther

“Amiable With Big Teeth – A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” by Claude McKay, 1941/2017

Yeah, that is a weird title.  This newly found and complete novel by Claude McKay, written in 1941 but never published until now, was found in the papers of another writer in 2009.  McKay was one of the leading black writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  Born in Jamaica, he lived outside the U.S. for many years in London, Paris and Tangiers.  He attended the 4thCongress of the Communist International in 1922 with Max Eastman, meeting Trotsky, Zinoviev and Bukharin.  He moved back to Harlem in the 1934, penniless.
Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who kept lions, not panthers

The novel centers on the movement among black people to defend Ethiopia after Italy’s Mussolini invaded it in October 1935, and ended in May 1936 when fascist forces entered Addis Ababa.  The subtext, as you might guess, is the role of mostly white “popular frontists’ in New York who attempt to take control of the movement from the prominent black citizens of Harlem. 

At the time, the USSR was one of the only countries opposing the Italian invasion in the League of Nations, while at the same time still selling oil and other products to Italy.  As pointed out by black nationalists, no weapons or aid was sent to Haile Selassie by the USSR.  This was unlike what happened in Spain during the 1936-1939 Civil War, when the USSR supplied the Popular Front government with supplies and volunteers.  It is possible that the issue was that one government was a kingdom and the other was a 'democratic' government, but it could also have been rooted in bigotry.  Roosevelt’s position on the invasion of Ethiopia (and Spain) was to do nothing, so the U.S. government was totally pathetic in the face of fascism.

The black community in the U.S. normally did not pay attention to international events.  But in this case it embraced Ethiopia as a comrade country, and turned out in the many thousands for rallies against the invasion by white Italy.  It reminded black people of their own position in the U.S. as an oppressed national group, now mirrored in a vicious conquest of an old African kingdom by a European power.

McKay’s book is invaluable in presenting a picture of the cultural, social and political currents in New York and Harlem at the time.  There are the “Senegambians’ who celebrate African culture.  There are the preachers and the prominent ‘talented 10th’ some of whom could ‘pass.’  There is party-going and bar-hopping and bad romance.  There are early Muslim converts who crusade against white or Jewish businesses.  Black nationalism, cultural nationalism, stunted forms of ‘class analysis,’ 2nd International socialists and high-society hedonism all gambol in the soup.  There is also a taste of Rastafarianism, as it too was based on the adulation of Haile Selassie and Ethiopia starting in the 1930s.

The more elite elements of Harlem society, led by a businessman Pablo Piexota, a former numbers runner, band together with a representative of the Ethiopian government, Lij Alamaya, to raise funds and consciousness.  At the same time, a mostly white group downtown, run by the Communist Party (CP), comes into competition.  The downtown group insists that there should be only one group, and it should have both black and white members.  The Harlem group disagrees, as they fear the splitting activities of the CP as well as the suspect role of white people, even ‘progressive’ white people.

These are familiar topics today, as a real united front between black and white and Latino workers is almost non-existent except in unions and very small efforts by socialist groups.  Groups like “Black Lives Matter” are run by black people, while white people go to BLM events and play a small role - similar to the Harlem group's outlook.  The existence of the ‘front group’ continues as well. There are sometimes actual ‘united fronts’ that last for one event or over time, and are not dominated by one political tendency to the exclusion of others.  Then there is the sectarian version of the front group, which tries to exclude anyone who is from another tendency.  In this book, the downtown group repeatedly denounces some of the members of the Harlem group as ‘Hitler-Mussolini-Trotskyite” fascists.  (Yeah, an actual, real slogan…) Even though these members had been elected to their positions and had support in the black community.

The lead villain is a white European CP member, Maxim Tasan, who spearheads the effort for a CP-dominated 'popular' front against the invasion.  Tasan says many things that make sense, but then displays his own disdain for ‘Aframericans,’ as McKay calls black people in the U.S.  McKay shows liberal white people making bigoted suggestions, or applauding a black artist who shows black people in crude negative caricatures.  The 'popular front' as portrayed by McKay is a unity with the middle and upper classes, not primarily aimed at proletarians. The downtown CP eventually defeats the Harlem group in the political battle through various shenanigans, but an odd revenge is successful.

McKay’s intense animus towards the CP is the central plot pivot of the book.  Some of the made-up exaggerations do not help convince the reader, and would have been more effective if they were more subtle or more realistic.  But McKay wanted to make it overly obvious how deceitful the CP leadership was.  Given the coming Hitler-Stalin peace pact in 1940, there is a bit of historical foreshadowing regarding betrayal here.  All that 'anti-fascism' suddenly is not so primary.  McKay later moved to Chicago and became a Catholic in 1944.   He died in 1948. This was his last book.

And I got it at the library!

Red Frog
Athens, GA

February 19, 2018

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Vote on This!

“Two Days, One Night,” film by the Dardenne Brothers, 2014

Even Belgium has proletarian filmmakers.  This quiet movie, starring Marion Cotillard, focuses on a small group of solar workers facing an ethical choice – whether to take a 1,100 bonus and lay a woman off, or refuse the bonus and keep her employed.    Cotillard plays Sandra Bya, who suffers from depression and took a leave of absence because of it, but now is able to work again. 

Union Meeting - Where Work Democracy Happens
After a vote, only 2 of 16 workers want to part with their bonus.  But the vote was swayed by a foreman who threatened that if she was kept on, others would be laid-off.  So the owner-manager said another vote could be held.  As a result, Sandra has to lobby her co-workers for two days and one night before the second vote on Monday to convince them that she should stay.

The first thing that strikes you is that, barring work at a co-op, no worker is ever asked to vote on anything by a boss at a U.S. company.  The closest U.S. workers get to actual democracy related to their job is if they have a union.  Then they can attend meetings, vote on issues and combine with their co-workers in various ways.  Without a union, workers are the subject of a lenient dictatorship or a harsh one, partly subject to labor laws, the kind of laws occasionally enforced.

Do workers in Belgium have more rights on the job?  While I could find no legal requirement for managers to ‘consult’ with employees on issues this small, it is quite possible that it could happen.  Labor is socially and legally stronger in Belgium than in the U.S., even in small towns like Seraing, near Liege. These workers had been working 3 hours a week extra to make up for the missing worker, and not all workers love overtime.  So it is quite reasonable that the boss left this difficult choice to his workforce. 

Sandra gets the addresses or phone numbers of each co-worker and visits or calls them over the course of the weekend.  And this voyage through the streets, shops, houses and apartments of Seraing reveals the lives of her co-workers.  Some agree, some cannot.  They for the most part politely discuss the issue with her, as all of them could be in her position, even if they don’t agree.  Only once is she assaulted by a young contract worker, who knocks over his own father in anger, then drives off in his tricked-out car.  Another female co-worker is roughly grabbed by her husband for even discussing the issue, and she resolves to leave him after that.  He wanted the money to fix their new pool wall.  You get to peek into the small lives of everyone – African, Arab, white – with their small children, cramped quarters and side jobs. 

Sandra still suffers from the after-affects of depression, so getting out of bed and begging for a job, even with the constant encouragement of her husband, a greasy spoon cook, is daunting.  But she makes it to the last person on the list late Sunday night.

Does she get rehired?  Well, in a U.S. film, she probably would have, but this is reality, not Norma Rae.  Nevertheless what the film shows is that fighting back and relying on your co-workers is not a losing strategy.  “Solidarity’ is a word and practice barely ever used anymore, as the labor movement is under assault everywhere in the world.  Sticking your neck out for a fellow worker is frowned upon in the new hard-edged coldness of a neo-liberal world.  But people still do it.

The Dardenne brothers have made non-commercial films for years, using hand-held cameras and real light, starting with documentaries.  They use mostly non-professional or unknown actors and friends as technical staff, keeping their town as their only shooting location.  They have an exclusive focus on proletarians, immigrants, the unemployed and the homeless.  The choice of Cotillard is rare.  She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress in this absolutely realistic performance – a first for a Dardenne film. 

Athens, GA
Red Frog
February 17, 2018