Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Witness

“I Am Not Your Negro,” film and book by Raoul Peck, texts by James Baldwin, 2107

James Baldwin spent many years in ‘the tree-shaded boulevards’ of Paris, escaping from the racism of U.S. society, but decided to come back and witness the fight against Jim Crow and for black rights in the 1960s.  This book and film are based on 30 pages of notes by Baldwin for an unpublished book centering on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers – all martyrs in the struggle for black liberation and also friends or acquaintances of Baldwin’s.  Peck, initially a Haitian, brings a radical Caribbean sensibility to his film curation of Baldwin’s work.  He was helped by Baldwin’s daughter throughout the project, as she gave him the notes that became the heart of the film.  Peck is currently working on another film about the young Karl Marx, due to be released this year.

Baldwin in the urban land
This topic is a very familiar tale for most leftists.  Baldwin, being a writer, is not as well known as the 3 protagonists.  As such the book or film are good introductions to his larger works – ‘Go Tell it On the Mountain,’ ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ and ‘The Fire Next Time.’  Baldwin calls himself a witness to the ‘participants’ – as he never went to jail, was beaten, shot at or killed – and there is a bit of guilt about his role of writer and witness here.  Even so the FBI put him on their ‘security index.’ 

Peck points out that Baldwin “saw through the system” and illustrates this with his many insights.  While many Americans blithely accept the history or politics or ‘news’ they are fed, radicals like Baldwin unearthed the real story.  Baldwin, like Jeffrey St. Clair, pointed out that knowing reality was preferable to a rhetorical ‘hope.’ Baldwin never managed to hate white people, as a white woman was very kind to him when he was young.  So his politics were not simply black nationalist.  For instance his attitude to the NAACP was negative, as it “was fatally entangled with black class distinction or illusions of the same, which repelled a shoe-shine boy like me.”  (The NAACP has not changed much!)  He points out that King and Malcolm X became closer over time, and Martin “picked up Malcolm’s burden, articulated the vision that Malcolm had begun to see.”  Baldwin equated segregation with ‘know-nothingism’ but knew that liberals like Bobby Kennedy were not really allies either.  Baldwin self-evidently knew it was harder to be a black revolutionary than a white one.  He knew that black people were in the Americas for one reason only – “cheap labor.”  And so on. 

Many Baldwin quotes in the book are like a poetic narrative, while others are bits of straight transcripts of interviews.  Baldwin frequently cited films and stars like John Wayne or Sidney Poitier in his writing, somewhat like Zizek today.  In this celluloid reality he saw the cultural heart of ‘Americaness,’ as did black audiences.  Baldwin says:  “Their concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics.’ Baldwin was also gay, but this issue did not come up very much in his narrative - and perhaps the monumental issues of the time forced it to the back seat.

I’ll leave you with a final quote:  “This is not the land of the free; it is only very sporadically and unwillingly the home of the brave.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
May 14, 2017 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Billions Dead in U.S. Alone

“The Emotional Lives of Animals,” by Marc Berkoff, 2007

Full disclosure.  I used to think that the ‘animal’ issue could wait until the ‘human’ issue was resolved.  Well, as is apparent in science and our own experience, there is no wall between them.  Nor between them and the environment as a whole.  So I’m now a 90% vegetarian that eats a bit of fish and two animal products, eggs and one kind of cheese.  I’m gradually reducing the latter two categories. This kind of food 'reductionism' is happening across the U.S.  And its part of the reaction to books like this.

Moon Bear in a 'crush cage' in China
This book starts with our own simple experience with dogs or cats or farm animals and links it up with science.  At one point science – based on Christianity and also capitalism – decreed that animals had no feelings, intelligence and were totally separate from humans.  This allowed animals to be treated like ‘things.’ To this day, some scientists still think this and of course the meat and dairy industry is based on it.  But according to Berkoff the majority of scientists now accept that animals have emotions and thought of a certain kind..  Like evolution and global warming, another scientific point that can be ignored? 

So people might wonder, what is the difference between us – is it only in degree?  Engels in ‘The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man” pointed to the unique role of labor in creating the human animal.  Oddly enough, Berkoff says that other animals spend about 90% of their time not working – not hunting or foraging or building a place to live.  While humans?  Way more work than that.  Of course, then there are the animals that work for men for a pittance - sheepdogs, elephants, water buffalo, horses, captive whales, etc.  Engels postulated that the erect hominid posture freed up the hands even more than any ‘ape.’  This allowed more fine ‘work’ to be accomplished, including the development of complex tools and weapons. Humans became the 'tool-making animal.'  Complex languages developed as a way for humans to communicate while working together. This led to brain development, then the development of shelters and clothing and the consequent spread of humans across the globe.

Engels said that humans ‘belong to nature’ and Berkoff obviously agrees.  We are connected intimately.  Darwin wrote that animals had at least 6 emotions, though more have been identified now, like sympathy, love, a sense of humor, even a certain ‘morality.’  Darwin observed 6:  anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear and surprise.  Berkoff makes the point that it would be illogical if evolution would not carry emotions forward to homo-sapiens.  Otherwise they would have to spring full-grown, ex nihilo, out of nothing.  Berkoff and other’s field experiments and observations – especially observing play - confirm that animals have many emotions; they share both neural areas of the brain and chemicals with humans; and that ‘anthropomorphizing’ animal behavior actually identifies animal emotions quite well.  Berkoff studied elephants, dogs, chimpanzees, birds, penguins, pigs, even mice.  He contends that ‘brain size’ has nothing to do with it and calls the handoff ‘evolutionary continuity.”

Berkoff identifies ‘behavioral flexibility’ in animals as more evidence of emotions and intelligence.  I.E. animals are not automatons. 

Emotions are actually key to animal survival.  Berkoff contends – as many other scientists are now confirming – that emotions enable cooperation and survival among groups.  Unlike capitalist / libertarian ideology which maintains a primitive ‘survival of the fittest’ ideology leading to rampant individualism, actual observation shows that animals that deceive, do not cooperate, attack others or break the ‘golden rule’ actually are isolated and sometimes driven out of groups.  Evolution confirms that cooperation plays the main role in survival, not conflict.  Berkoff’s field studies indicate that animals spend far more time taking care of each other than fighting – even across species.  So the promotion of social Darwinism or biological ‘survival of the fittest’ is primarily an ideological project, not based on science. 

Of course, the key in politics is ‘what group’ you are part of.  If you pick the wrong ‘group’ you may become an inappropriate enemy of another group.

Berkoff stopped using animals for scientific studies after obediently killing a certain dog for an experiment.  He subsequently became a vegetarian purely for ethical reasons.  He opposes the meat industry, the animal experimentation complex and zoos and circuses because of their destructive effect on animals, in the wild and not.  He dedicated the book to Jasper, a moon bear kept in a ‘crush cage’ for 15 years in China.  The cage helped squeeze the bile out of his body – part of some kind of ‘traditional’ Chinese medicine.  This would be like you lying in a cage for 15 years unable to move, with bars pressed against your body.  Sadism?  Sure. The bear was ultimately rescued.

In 1998 26.8 billion animals were killed for food in the U.S.  That does not include hunting, road kill, testing or government extermination programs.  That number would be far higher today. The meat industry worldwide is the biggest beneficiary of the lust for meat, which has now become the signifier of economic success in many societies. I'm not talking about societies where meat is part of survival.  Like addictions to sugar, salt and fat, meat is a fetish or a habit in societies that have a choice, but still unsustainable in the present world environment.   

As our scientific knowledge grows, ‘animals’ become part of any project of liberation, socialist or otherwise.  The 'metabolic rift' between human society and nature has to be overcome.  Like nearly all 'green' deep ecology or 'animal rights' thinkers, Berkoff cannot locate the source of this alienation in the very nature of capital, and hence has no revolutionary alternative to it.  Yet it is capital that gains through the exploitation of man, animal and nature.

Prior reviews on books about this subject: “Fear of an Animal Planet,”, “Salt, Fat & Sugar,” "Green is the New Red," and various books on factory farming.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
May 6, 2017

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Something's Happening Here...

The Ultra-Right

Monthly Review, a Marxist magazine, has called the present situation ‘pre-fascist.’  That might not be quite accurate, but it is certainly an improvement over prior positions that have been loosely slung on the internet.  Their position is a bit of an antidote to the hysterical and impressionistic liberals who call every right-wing thing ‘fascist,’ or the ‘knowing’ radicals who think that the combination of corporations and government is already ‘fascism.’  The support of corporations by the capitalist state is general capitalist policy, and has been since the development of the corporation.  The latter is Mussolini’s definition of fascism, not a Marxist one.  Trump is not a ‘fascist’ – he is the open rule of capital, but without (yet) the need to crush opposition.

One of 4 clashes at Berkely, CA, USA
Both of these positions denigrate actual fascism and reveal a deep ignorance of history.  There have been plenty of racist, sexist and nationalistic U.S. presidents and policies.  Can you say ‘Japanese internment camp’ or ‘Jim Crow’ or 'bracero' or even 'Taft Hartley"?  6 million Jews, 20 million Soviet citizens, millions of Chinese, hundreds of thousands of socialists, trade unionists, Roma and homosexuals and even Jehovah’s Witnesses were victims of real fascism.  So far Trump’s immigration ban, drones and bombings have not approached that level. 

However Trump at this point in history is encouraging a small movement of Neo-Nazis, Klan members, ‘alt-right’ organizations, militias and white nationalists to come out in the open in the U.S. and even in other countries like France.  In the past, the Nazis and Klan were isolated and vastly out-numbered.  They were confronted by the left-wing and anti-racist organizations for years and had crawled back into their holes. Now the ultra-rightist movement has metastasized far beyond these groups due to the economic failures of capital and the vast concentration of wealth at the top.  That is what has changed.

A key part of fascism is the suspension of democratic rights by government through various laws and police actions, but in coordination with fascists in the streets.  Fascist ideology directs hostility away from the rich and capitalism and towards a long list of scapegoats.  This is part of an attempt to create a mass base in the population for fascist policies.  Controlling the streets by brown-shirts is a key part of the development of real fascism. 

That is what is starting to happen now on a broader scale, beyond isolated incidents.  Here in Minneapolis, last year a quartet of white nationalists came to a Black Lives Matter occupation outside the 4th Precinct police station and intentionally shot several people.  The leader of that group has just been indicted.  In Seattle, an anti-Trump, anti-Milo Yiannopoulos protester was shot in the stomach by a far-rightist.  In Berkeley, 4 clashes have already occurred.  Yiannopoulos was turned away by a mass protest in February, then in April, antifas – mostly anarchists and some communists - violently clashed with ultra-rightists at pro-and anti-Trump rallies.  According to the right-wingers, they came out ahead in several clashes.  They are basically yearning for blood, but courts are still indicting them, so they do not yet have the state stamp of approval.  Recently reactionary performance artist Ann Coulter canceled her appearance in Berkeley due to anti-fascist pressure.

Yesterday, an armed neo-Nazi rally took place in Pikeville, Kentucky, while odd 'militias' claiming to be neutral also showed up. Kentucky is an ‘open carry’ state so both sides could bring guns.  In response the liberals canceled their anti-racist rally and students were advised to leave town.  The city council banned masks and hoods used by the black bloc, so anti-fascist protesters showed up with bandannas only.  The sides were kept apart by fences and a police line and no one got hurt.  The 3 small groups of ultra-rightists seem isolated.  I saw one black guy across the street carrying a semi-automatic combat weapon.  Wonder how long 'open carry' will exist when black and Latino groups start carrying semi-autos? (Shades of the Panthers...!) This event in the South seemed similar to prior failed attempts by neo-Nazis to demonstrate, showing their isolation.

The ultra-right understands that physically controlling the streets and normalizing fascist events is key to their progress.  Some leftists – not all – also understand this.  Any reading of German, Spanish or Italian history shows that street clashes were part of the fascist attempt at power.  In Germany and Italy the Communists and the Nazis fought constant street battles before Hitler or Mussolini came to state power.  It is inevitable.

The left has to understand that the media, the ACLU, the Democratic Party and the neo-liberals in general will never support shutting down these ultra-rightists.  Not until someone is at their door! Anyone hoping the police will step in don’t know that the police can be allies of the ultra-right, and when they disappear – look out.  This recently happened in Berkeley, as the police let the confrontations go on and stood back hoping the rightist fighters would win.  A classic example is from Greensboro North Carolina, where a massacre took place in 1979.  The Communist Workers Party and other anti-fascists protested a KKK/Nazi rally. 5 were killed and 10 wounded when the Klan/Nazi’s opened fire after pulling weapons out of their car trunks.  All-white juries acquitted the fascists.  Prior to this, the police withdrew and that should have been a danger signal for the protesters. If you think the cops are there to ‘quell violence’, think again, as this will not always happen.

The ultra-right will parade behind the absurd banner of ‘free speech’ – yet fascist speech is not allowed in Germany for good reason.  The U.S. liberals will back the ultra-right on this though.   Speech that leads to killing minorities is not really a ‘reasoned’ debate pointing to some reasonable and peaceful resolution.  There is no debating them, as they don’t have ideas, just instincts. 

However, given the danger, leftist tactics and slogans must be carefully chosen.  Each situation is different.  Sloppy voluntaristic tactics sometimes get people hurt or arrested unnecessarily.  Anarchists are especially prone to ultra-leftism in their enthusiasm.  Self-defense is the best tactic, but not always possible or desirable.  Yet leftists who want to distance themselves from these confrontations are also making a sectarian mistake. They have to get involved too.  What is needed is a permanent anti-fascist united front with weight, organization and military skills that can eventually draw in the heavy battalions of the labor movement, white anti-racists, the black and Latino community and every left group possible to shut down these ultra-reactionaries, who are a danger to us all.

In the meantime, as the Boy & Girl Scouts say, ‘Be Prepared!’

Happy Mayday!  Demonstrate today!
Red Frog
April 30, 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The First One

“What Is To Be Done?” by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, 1863

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917, I read Lenin’s favorite novel, the title of which he later turned into his first pamphlet in 1902.  To the Russian movement this book has been compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its real-world subversive impact.  It was written as a direct counterpoint to mainstream liberals like Turgenev, who reviled Chernyshevsky.  According to the introduction, younger Bolsheviks made fun of Lenin’s fondness for this work, which continued throughout his life.  I can see why they found it somewhat odd.

Chernyshevsky in the Pillory, St. Petersburg
Chernyshevsky himself wrote just this one book.  His main role was as the editor of a materialist, feminist and socialist publication in St. Petersburg, Russia – ‘Sovremennik.’  He supported the idea that art should be a weapon in changing society.  After radical student disturbances in St. Petersburg in 1862, he was blamed, arrested and put in the Peter-Paul Fortress, then exiled for the rest of his life.  In the Peter-Paul fortress, he wrote What Is To Be Done.  This is a work of prison literature. 

In 1863 Czarist censors poured over manuscripts looking for seditious and revolutionary thoughts.  So much of this novel, which is designed as somewhat of a comedy of manners, is in ‘code.’  There are no heroic workers, no strikes, no rebellions, no mass violence, no war, no direct class conflict, no factories or peasants.  It is a close look at a trio of ‘new people’ – those who are not identified as fools or swindlers.  Chernyshevsky observed that most of Russian society was made up of these two latter types.   The ‘new people’ are young, use reason and science, abhor money and acquisitiveness, are quite cultured and admire utopian socialists Owen & Fourier.  They seriously discuss various new scientific theories, such as on soil or related to medicine or psychology.  They believe that Russian society is corrupt and needs to be changed.  You could call them a ‘professional elite’ because of their educations and jobs, but people during the period called them ‘the intelligentsia.’  This strata became a class definition in early versions of Marxism but no longer.   

In the text are allusions to revolution and socialism, but without the excellent footnotes you’d be skilled to find them all.  The one quite clear example is the formation of sewing cooperatives by Vera Pavlovna, the key female protagonist.   There the women workers ultimately share the profits, make joint decisions, live together, form buying clubs and help each other out in various ways –a microcosm of the coming socialist society.  Vera herself, the founder, shares equally instead of lording it over the collective as would be her conventional due.  Three cooperative workshops are established by the end of the book.  As you can see, the working-class feminist slant of the novel, especially in 1863, was very strong.

The first part of this 400-page narrative consists of a young Vera running away from home and her controlling mother, and getting married to the man she loves, Lopukhov, a student doctor.  Her mother was forcing her into a marriage with a somewhat wealthy military man she didn’t like for among other things, his intellectual dullness.  This is a familiar storyline in the development of capitalism and romantic love that continues even now in the film and literature of a number of countries like India or Iran.  At that time in Russia the girl could be arrested, incarcerated or forcibly returned to the parents, or the man sued in court by the disobeyed parents.  After several years of a somewhat sterile marriage Vera begins to fall in love with her husband’s best friend, Kirsanov, another student doctor.  ‘Sterile’ because there is not even the slyest suggestion of sex in the book – so it’s not clear if this is the result of censorship or if Vera & Lopukhov are in a platonic relationship, acting as a veritable ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.  Vera & Lopukhov sleep in separate beds all the time, have separate rooms and this seems to be part of their being ‘new people.’  When Vera announces she is now in love with Kirsanov, Lopukhov is not upset at all – until later...  I will not reveal this plot point.  This triangle forms the second part of the book.  

The third part involves the marriage of Kirsanov and Vera.  It starts with the strict radical Rakhmetov.  He is variously described as ‘horrible’ and ‘the rigorist.’  If Rakhmetov and “Raskolnikov” sound alike, perhaps Doestoevsky thought so too.  Crime & Punishment came out in 1866, not long after this book.  Doestoevsky, like other Russian liberals and conservatives, were horrified by the anti-Czarist anarchists looming up in their midst and this showed in their fiction.  Turgenev included a 'nihilist' radical named Basarov in Fathers & Sons. Rakhemtov, though his friends don’t know it, is the son of a landed aristocrat, and has 3,000 rubles a year in income – a not inconsiderable sum.  Yet at one point Rakhhemtov sleeps on a bed of nails.  He abstains from sex or drink, travels the world learning and contacting other revolutionaries.  In this book he acts as a stand-in for Lupukhov in a conversation with Vera.   But he is obviously the ‘monk’ of revolution – a type we are acquainted with in such books as I Married a Communist. (reviewed below)

The rest of the book is full of psychological and political dialog, and leads up to a somewhat artificial plot trick that would be ridiculous except for its usefulness in making a pedantic point about love.  Vera herself begins to train to be a doctor.  Oddly, Vera and Kirsanov sleep in separate beds again, with only the barest hint that they may actually visit each other’s beds!  The book’s narrative centers around 3 love affairs, and it is not clear if that is its real intent or it is preparing the way for Chernysheveky’s prediction of a Russian revolution by 1865 – or both.  It includes an idyllic vision of the coming socialism, similar to what William Morris did in News from Nowhere in 1890. (reviewed below)

Stylistically, Chernyshevsky interrupts the plot many times, addressing the reader as the author, making fun of the standard ‘mysteries’ that authors use, arguing with reader and critic alike.  This ‘distancing’, like Brecht, makes clear that this book is not about creating a fabulous and romantic world you can escape into, as Tolstoy does in Anna Karenina.  It is a somewhat modern technique.  The book has very little in the way of plot, and is mostly dialog obsessing about the nature of love and sub-textually, politics.  

What has happened to the ‘intelligentsia” since 1863?  Lenin quite clearly put some faith in this strata.  Yet now no ‘intelligentsia’ exists.  The present petit-bourgeois strata – professors, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, scientists, journalists – live comfortable lives reconciled to the capitalist system.  They are mostly supporters of the Democratic Party.  The spread of education in the U.S., Europe and parts of the rest of the world – (the majority of U.S./Euro graduates now get college degrees, whether useful or not!)  - makes education, science and reason more widespread.  As a result, the most radical elements in Europe or the U.S. will not be found in the ‘degreed’ strata that Thomas Frank makes fun of (Listen, Liberal!, reviewed below) but among self-educated, working-class autodidacts with or without college credits.  Those perhaps who have not gained entry into the well-paid professional strata, yet feel they are not fools!  There might be certain elements of the professional strata that DO join the radical movement (Chris Hedges as an example), but the strata as a whole has lost any modern claim to leadership.  The next revolution will be far more led by the actual people that it will directly benefit.  This changes the nature of any ‘vanguard’ party or parties that might come into existence.

The fact that Lenin liked this book so much has much to do with its historical role, as there was nothing like it at the time.  If What Is To Be Done seems like one long drawing-room melodrama with women and love as its focus, then perhaps there was another side to V.I. Ulyanov that has been ignored. 

Red Frog
April 23, 2017
Happy Earth, Science, Weed Days!

P.S. – Isn’t it odd that the U.S. has to promote science while in 1863 they also had to promote science?  The only constant here is the necessary irrationalism needed by capital.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Pirate Lenin

“Black Sails,” Starz TV, Seasons 1-4, 2014-2017

Pirates usually get the corny clich├ęd treatment, as if Robert Lewis Stevenson was still alive writing books for young boys.  Black Sails is not quite that way.  It forces you to look at the very real material world they lived in.  The series tells the tale of a rebellion by pirates, maroons (escaped slaves) and slaves against the British empire, interwoven with the story of Captain James Flint and “Long” John Silver from the book Treasure Island. They become two of the leaders of that rebellion.


The first thing is dates.  There is an interweaving of real history and literary history here. The events in ‘Black Sails’ start in 1715.  That is the date of the sinking of a Spanish treasure fleet near the coast of Florida, including the ship the “Urca de Lima,” which was beached.  Pirates led by Henry Jennings and Charles Vane looted that ship and came away with a considerable amount of money.  In 1716 an actual ‘pirate republic’ was established in Nassau the Bahamas on New Providence Island, independent of the British.  In 1717 a British pardon was issued to pirates on New Providence who would take it, though not all did.  The events in the book Treasure Island took place in 1754 or 1734, so this story predates that book.  In this story the Urca treasure ultimately ends up on Skeleton Island, the mysterious island that Stevenson invented. 

Earlier, one of the most successful slave rebellions took place in Mexico, when slave runaways led by Gaspar Yanga lived in the mountains above Veracruz from 1570 to 1618, when they were legalized by the Spanish.  Later Toussaint Louverture led the anti-slavery and independence rebellion in Haiti from 1791 until he was killed in France in 1803, and subsequently JJ Dessalines led it to victory in 1804, when Haiti declared its independence.  Famous U.S. based slave rebellions – Gabriel Prosser, 1808; Denmark Vesey, 1822; and Nat Turner, 1831 – all post-dated these events in the Caribbean.  The slave trade was abolished by England in 1807, and slavery itself abolished in 1833.  It took until 1865, after a violent civil war, for slavery to be abolished in the U.S. 

The Caribbean Revolution

The Pirate Lenin - Separated at Birth
So ‘Black Sails’ is a factual / fictional window into the Caribbean in the early 1700s, long before the U.S. revolution or Civil War or most famous slave rebellions. The conflict between Flint and the British is visualized by Flint and the maroon leader Madi as a combined anti-slavery and independence revolution involving all the slaves in the Caribbean – under Spanish, English or French rule – in unity with every pirate in the Americas.  They want to take back not just Nassau but the whole region.  The actor playing Flint not only looks like Lenin, but his resolution and scope parallel Lenin.  That is why the absurd ending of Season 4 is so ridiculous.  I’ll get to that later. 

Most reviews of “Black Sails” will concentrate on the betrayals by various pirates who go over to the British; the love affairs which twist events in their own way; the emotional bond and conflicts between Flint and Silver; the chest of riches; the incredible plot dives and rises.  The pirate acolytes will point out that the pirate ships used in the series are much bigger than in reality; that the women in Nassau are far prettier than the prostitutes would have been.  The feminists will correctly note that the high status and ‘modernity’ of women in ‘Black Sails’ – mostly as merchants, sometimes as lesbians – might not be correct.  Two women are key leaders of the Nassau business community, which is attempting to go 'legit' throughout most of the tale.  It is the real history of slavery and piracy that grounds this story and gives it gravitas. It is the bones of the tale.  Bourgeois reviewers will concentrate on anything but a united black/white struggle against empire – fictional or not - so I am doing otherwise.

What is true is that two leaders of the ‘Black Sails’ slave rebellion – The Maroon Queen and Madi, her daughter – closely parallel a real Maroon rebel in Jamaica, Queen Nanny, who led a successful struggle in 1720, holding land in the mountains of Jamaica against the British for years.  Like many maroons, she also united with indigenous Arawaks and other Amerindians against their colonial oppressors.  ‘Maroon’ is a term meaning escaped slave, perhaps coming from a Spanish word meaning ‘untamed.’  One of Toussaint Louverture’s military commanders was a man called ‘”John Julian.”  In this story a “Julian” is the leader of the slave rebellion on New Providence Island.  Real pirates play leading roles too – Anne Bonny, “Calico” Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Jeremy Hornigold, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Ned Low and non-real ones – Billy Bones from Treasure Island.  The British governor of New Providence Island, Woodes Rogers, was also a real person.

‘Civilization’ and Freedom

So lets get to the politics implicit in this story, reminding ourselves who is writing it.  The conflict between British ‘civilization’ and the pirate way actually shows civilization to be perhaps more cruel and brutal.  The British embraced slavery, while many pirate crews included maroons who had escaped the plantations.  In fact it was probably one of the best gigs to get after escaping.  Black pirates were treated as equal members of the crews, shared equally in the spoils, got to vote equally with the white pirates.  Some of Blackbeard’s ships consisted of 40% black maroons.  Black pirates would not accept a pardon because they would be sent back to slavery or jailed, unlike white ones.   For the white sailors, many had come from the poverty-stricken streets of London or Ireland or off a British ship, where sailors were treated like dirt.  There was more democracy and freedom on a pirate ship than on a British Man-o-War by a long shot.  The pirates actually vote for their captains, which is a continued theme in 'Black Sails'.  And there were more earnings for the sailors.  Stealing gold and silver from the Spanish, who had turned the silver mine at Potosi, Bolivia into a prison and death camp for indigenous people was not really a crime.  Most of the ships the pirates stopped would have been filled with the spoils of colonial oppression.

The descent of Governor Rogers from an educated and ‘smart’ British businessman and warrior into a brutal killer hints that ‘civilization’ isn’t all its cracked up to be.  

Thar Be Spoilers Ho!

Riffing off of history, the writers imply that Flint’s decision to wage a revolution is merely a psychological issue.  He gets more radical only after his lover is shot by the British.  So he’s obsessed!  Yet Flint's attempt to broker a peace with Britain is literally ‘shot down’ – compromise has become impossible.  Many pirates like Vane and Blackbeard die in the rebellion but others are looking for pardons or deals.  So Flint is not the only pirate who does not relish the idea of the British regaining power.   He is the 'hard left.' Nor is the point about slavery a minor, psychological matter.

John Silver and Madi ultimately fall in love, and this unity of a maroon and a pirate joins the two groups.  In the U.S. unity between white and black is essential for the success of any rebellion, in spite of what the guilty liberals, white bigots or right-wing black nationalists say.  The series shows how there are always people on both sides who want to break unity.  In 'Black Sails' it is made fictionally real.  At one point the Spanish unite with Woodes Rogers to suppress the slave rebellion on New Providence, showing that all the colonial powers at that time had the same agenda.  Pretty progressive stuff, aye?

What is to be Done?

The last episode actually begins with these words and mentions the conflict between the 'human debris' - pirates and maroons - and 'civilization.'  Silver, who had been part of Flint's hard-line faction, ultimately can’t follow through on the rebellion, even when success is in the pirate/maroon grasp.  He is weary and that is somewhat understandable.  We can thank the writers of ‘Black Sails’ for that failure, as many other outcomes of this story could have been devised then the right-wing one they settled on.  As I've pointed out before, endings are the hardest part, and it is where the ideological - and even artistic - failures of nerve most often occur.  At this point in the story, money for the rebellion, unity of the maroons and pirates and the defeat of Rogers have all been accomplished.  A huge fleet of pirate ships has been assembled to take back Nassau. Slaves everywhere would be responsive.   This is Flint and Madi's position - to move forward.

Instead ... Flint is grabbed by Silver and his allies and sent to a prison work farm in Savannah, Georgia where Flint’s former gay lover is imprisoned.  Flint is rendered happy with this reunion, in these absurd ending that has no reality except for 'identity' writers in Hollywood.  Madi ultimately makes up with Silver for his betrayal of the revolution, so that is also a ‘happy’ ending.  An invisible deal is made with the maroons led by Julian – which the writers don’t bother to detail.  Slavery continues.  The British return to rule Nassau with the help of some ex-pirates and not-so-ex pirates.  The peace of empire is restored. And we assume that one day Long John will go back to Skeleton island looking for the buried treasure.

Jack Rackham closes the series by telling the tale of the dangers of the Urca treasure to a wannabe pirate… and we truly are back to Robert Louis Stevenson. A colossal failure of nerve ends 'Black Sails.'

Red Frog
April 14, 2017

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Matrix is Real

“Shrinking the Technosphere – Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-Sufficiency and Freedom,” by Dimitry Orlov, 2017

This book is one of Orlov’s weakest due to his many sidetakes.  He envisons present society as a unitary self-regulating ‘technosphere’ similar to the Gaia hypothesis.  Gaia says that the whole earth and nature are one self-regulating living unitary system.  But instead of capitalism or neo-liberalism, Orlov renames the economic and political system the ‘technosphere’ – sort of like the ‘Matrix’ or HAL in ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey.’  Humans are dominated by the technosphere and he wants to dig a way out of its control.  This renaming is because Orlov is allergic to the term capitalism or the uses of technology by capitalism.  His project diverts attention away from the ‘economic’ womb nearly all the world lives in by making it linguistically invisible.  Orlov is in love with sweeping and somewhat grandiose statements, yet he has some valuable ideas, especially coming from his Russian background.

Russian Cabin - Can you Build it?
More than half of the book is taken up with making fun of deluded liberals’ and vicious conservatives’ addictions to technology.  There is a paen to Ted Kaczynski, pointing out that as a very young college student Kaczynski was subjected to an MKUltra experiment, which permanently soured him on the government. In the book Orlov continually poses the choice of a planetary industrial Armageddon or returning to a small farming or hunting/fishing lifestyle.  Orlov ultimately rejects Kaczynski’s revolutionary project of opposing all industry and community (ala deep ecology) and gathers a more rational list of methods to oppose the ‘technosphere.’  Essentially he recommends local, secretive, artisanal, small group, time-tested methods of survival in a post-industrial world, using a ‘benefit/harm’ method of evaluating technology.   The Russian log cabin, stove, sauna and un-heated entry room are examples of workable accommodations to collapse.

In the process Orlov quotes Nietzsche, upholds gender roles and ethnic tribalism, and praises health and physical strength – recommending the avoidance of physical and emotional weaklings.  His ideal is the isolated Russian village of the past. If this sounds a bit primitive and reactionary for an upscale former physicist who spends his present days sailing on a solar and propane-powered yacht with his wife, you might be right.  One of Hitler’s first acts was to kill thousands of mentally and physically disabled Germans.  Orlov’s view of hunter/gatherer societies is actually somewhat stereotyped, as ‘odd people,’ old people and weak people had a role there too.  He believes in 'survival of the fittest' - but that is not actually how primitive communist societies functioned.

Orlov wants to replace technology with nature.  As such his methods dovetail nicely with many survivalist, anarcho-deep ecology practices, but he also fits into the understanding that without a functional and close relation to nature in the near future, we will starve and die.  Food will be the main issue as climate change burns up agricultural land and despoils the oceans, minerals run out and power from oil/gas, nuclear and even solar and wind become infrequent or missing.  Orlov understands we are already on the back-side of peak oil, while coal and nuclear are dying.  He thinks solar and wind production use up as much energy to make as they produce, but he has no figures to back that up.  Solar and wind cannot replace all of present energy, so no matter what happens there will be less ‘energy’ in the future to harness.  The only solution is a certain downscaling.  Hence his plan of breaking with the ‘technosphere’ and replacing it with ‘natural technology,’ a phrase he borrows from a speech by Vladimir Putin. 
The three worst things Orlov sees are nuclear power, genetically modified food and nano-technology because they all have the possibility of absolutely ruining the whole planet and the humans on it.  Just on the issue of GMOs (which Russia has banned, part of making Russia the largest producer of organic food in the world) it is clear that the capitalist privatization of seeds and food is behind GMOs.  GMOs are profitable because it forces farmers to buy these essentials from Big Ag corporations in the U.S.  Given the U.S. is a much larger capitalist power than Russia, this only makes sense for Monsanto and ADM.  Yet the source is not some kind of ‘Matrix’ – it is neo-liberal privatization and monopoly.

Earth Dugout prior to cabin.
Orlov supplies a list of basic tools needed to survive in a single location, and describes the skills that will be necessary in his future/past world – metal and wood working, hunting & fishing, small scale farming, animal breeding, food preparation and food gathering.  Dogs, cats and chickens are part of the formula.   Due to the changing climate, nomadism – living in black tents in the desert, yurts in the plains or forests, dome tents in the Arctic, all in close relation with local animals – actually might be the only way to survive.  His current back-to-the-land romanticism is not necessarily proletarian.  As you can see, Orlov is an advocate of the old-fashioned rural peasant or herder economy. 
Orlov eschews nearly all political struggle, though he makes a short nod to Russian ‘partisans’.  He describes the broken ‘political technologies’ used in the U.S. and then exported around the world, including what he calls the elite ‘color revolution syndicate’ of State Department NGOs, propaganda and money.  Like many leftists, he supports the vote to leave the Ukraine by Crimea and the struggle against the imperial-fascist putsch in Kiev by the Russian partisans living in eastern Ukraine.  His name for bureaucracy here is re-christened ‘social machines’ – corporate, church, military, legal and political party control mechanisms.  Most of these chapters do not add much to what politically-aware people already know. 

Nevertheless, like his prior books Orlov highlights the issue of what technologies working-class people need to continue, and what we need to discard. My personal opinion is that a stage of technology for the whole world would be around the 1940-45 level in the U.S., prior to the takeoff of the suburban car economy.  Of course, newer technologies would replace coal.  This is also when carbon levels began to accelerate exponentially. However, getting back to this level, even with new technologies, is a matter of timing and revolutionary action against the market system - and time is running out.  Orlov is predicting a 15 degree rise in temperatures, not 2, so this would create a terminal threat to agriculture and the seas almost worldwide.  He thinks nothing can be done except preparing.

Other books by Orlov reviewed below:  Reinventing Collapse,” and “The 5 Stages of Collapse.”  Use blog search box, upper left. 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 8, 2017

Monday, April 3, 2017

Independent With Sheep

“Independent People,” by Halldor Laxness, 1946

This book won the Nobel Prize for Literature back when and is probably unknown to most.  It is a social-realist Icelandic tale set in the period before, during and after WWI.  It is reminiscent of the Scandinavian-U.S. writers like Knut Hamsun or O.E. Rolvaag, or in the tradition of Zola, Gogol and Hardy – high bourgeois fiction prior to modernism.  The graphic and detailed descriptions of peasant life in remote parts of Iceland are thorough and populist. 
Icelandic Sheep are Better than People.
The odd part is that this book ostensibly tells the story of a flinty ‘crofter’ who worships his sheep over everything else and you can’t tell if Laxness is making fun of this farmer or celebrating him.  Bjartur of Summerhouses first survives as hired labor for his Bailiff, a local gentry.  Then he buys a sheep-farm on marginal land in a mountain valley, christening it "Summerhouses," which has to be a joke.  After a long period of struggle and a short period of sudden prosperity his property is foreclosed on after he builds a too-expensive house.  In the process he loses his virtual daughter Asta Sollilja, several sons, two wives and some babies, and mostly cares about his sheep as an ‘independent’ man. 

The refrain ‘independent man’ reoccurs constantly, as Bjartur never accepts help nor evidently gives it.  He loves his sheep, which are the economic foundation of his life.  In one episode, Bjartur goes looking for a lost sheep while his wife is in labor, and she is dead upon his return.  His oldest son leaves the turf-covered cottage in the middle of a winter-storm in distress and Bjartur finds his body in the spring, and thinks no more of it.  He throws his pregnant daughter Asta out of the croft-house and she stumbles away almost shoeless.  A competent housekeeper who comes to live in his house is also told to leave after bringing home too many fine things from a shopping trip to town.  He will be the recipient of no ones charity.

Bjartur is almost a caricature of the backward farmer.  He loves old sagas and lives in the cultural past, dislikes women, never spends a dime he doesn’t have to, works like a dog, puts up with every physical discomfort as if it was nothing, and has no emotional attachment to his children or wives – at least that he lets on about.  His take on the world is intentionally obtuse and bad-tempered.  He initially refuses to join the collective society, preferring to owe his debt to a rich merchant instead.  Other farmers are smart enough to be kind to their wives and children, who grow up to help on the farmsteads, but not Bjartur.  The only son still living with him failed to sail to America due to an absurd romantic attachment with a rich man’s daughter, and got stuck in Iceland.  Otherwise he too would be gone.

In the very end, after being foreclosed upon, Bjartur changes.  He allows his last son to join a bunch of Bolshevik workers who are on strike in the port city of Fjord, as they wait for an attack by police.  He accepts bread stolen by a striker from a rich landlord’s wife – something no ‘independent’ man would have ever done before.  And he finally but accidentally visits his lost daughter and her two children in their poverty-stricken hut in Fjord and decides to help them out.  Ultimately he realizes complete ‘independence’ is impossible. 

Laxness carefully describes the cycles of disease, debt, boredom, really bad weather, death, ignorance, superstition, prudery, politics, loans, fake social-democracy and the one period of prosperity during WWI that the crofters lived through.  Laxness makes constant fun of the Christian religion, which Bjartur also has no truck with.  Laxness implies that an evil spirit named ‘Kolumkilli’ supposedly living in Bjartur’s hills to haunt the poor farmers is really the ghost of Icelandic society, not magic.  Kolumkilli is not the reason Bjartur is doomed – it is because of the functioning of Icelandic capitalism at this time.    

For all those Leninists who never read fiction, please see the recent article in the Guardian about Lenin’s close reading of Russian fiction.  Lenin sometimes characterized his enemies as characters in some of the novels he carefully read.  Fiction is many times more factual than ‘fact,’ as even Lenin knew, and this book certainly proves that.  Take heed.  Don't be a Bjartur!

Red Frog
April 3, 2017

Friday, March 31, 2017

Art-House Uprising

“The Age of Uprising – the Legend of Michel Kholhaas” film directed by Arnaud de Pallieres, 2013

This French-German film is about a ridiculously handsome horse trader living in a rock-walled countryside maison who is insulted by a local Baron.  It is the 1600s in France.  His valet is attacked by the Baron’s two dogs and two of his horses are abused for 3 months and he finds them broken and bloody.  When he sues the Baron over this, his case is turned down three times due to the Baron’s influence with the judges.  His wife goes to plead his case to the “Princess” – the sister of the King of France, the Queen of Navarre – and she is killed by the arrogant Baron’s men.

Moody leading man with sword in gauzy countryside
So Kholhaas decides to begin a jacquerie.  He and his 4 servants assault the Baron’s chateau and kill all his soldiers, but the Baron escapes to a nunnery.  They assault the nunnery with flaming arrows and the Baron escapes disguised as a nun.  Instead they attack an armed convoy guarding a decoy.  Kholhaas’ group grows from 5 to 7, then 18, then 100s, as displaced and angry peasants join the fight.  As he is about to assault the Princesses’ town with equal numbers to her soldiers, a priest/preacher (Martin Luther in the original) convinces him to lay down his arms.  This in exchange for his horses being restored to health and compensation paid for his valet, who has already been killed in the fighting.  This is a deal brokered by the Princess.  Kholhaas tells his men to disarm too.  Their weapons are brought in and the small army disbanded. 

Of course, the bargain is not kept, as one peasant kills a landlord.  So the whole deal collapses.  Kholhaas is arrested.  A deal with the Princess leads to him getting his horses and compensation, while the Baron gets two years in jail, which is not believable at all.  Kholhaas himself loses his head to the axe-man in 'exchange.His young daughter is left motherless and fatherless.

That is the story the film tells.  It is ultimately dark, dull and pointless.  The film is fatally flawed.  Why?

It is based on a true story about a German merchant who was abused by a Saxon noble in the 1500s.  The merchant ultimately got a group of criminals behind him, raiding Saxony, and was finally arrested and killed in Berlin.

So this film is really a wholly fictional creation – hence an ideological creation.  What is the real story it is telling?  Mention is made of many peasant uprisings in the past, but no reasons or grievances are mentioned for these uprisings.  No brutality against peasants is shown.  The men following Kholhaas are merely extras.  Only his loyal valet stands out.  The reasons the poor peasants join Kholhaas are mysterious.  We are to assume they are fighting and dying because they are upset that he lost his wife and his horses were abused – that is it.  Then he buys into the pacifist lie told by the preacher/priest to lay down his arms. And he does, for he is a religious fellow… As a result he loses his life and abandons his followers, some of whom have already been killed. 

The story is really about middle-class outrage, small-mindedness and short-sightedness, dressed up as a drama or tragedy.  It represents the clash between the rising commercial strata and the weakening royal strata.  The key point here is that the perspectives of the peasants are completely ignored by the filmmakers and Kholhaas himself.  We don’t even know what happened to them when the disarmament deal collapsed.  Certainly the Church is exposed once again as an ally of royalty.  Royalty itself is displayed as either vicious or duplicitous. Yet if you are going to go to war, then you have to prosecute the war to the fullest - and not for narrow, personal reasons alone, but for broader ones.  The filmmakers are afraid to get away from this solely personal lens and link the story to others.  It is an isolated ‘uprising’ of one.

The film is more like a fool’s errand, as his fight for ‘honor’ ends up bereaving his own daughter twice.  The emotional subtext is that anyone watching will think to themselves – why ever fight?  You only lose.  That pessimism is ultimately the film’s other point.

Oh, and the film contains a moody French countryside, lots of wind, beautiful horses, constant buzz of flies, time inconsistencies, flinty lead actor looks and cross-bows! 

Red Frog
March 31, 2017

Sunday, March 26, 2017

On an Emotional Edge

“Hillbilly Elegy – a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance

This book is a memoir of a still young man about his life in Middletown, Ohio, and its roots in the coal country of southeastern Kentucky, just north of Harlan.   Vance became a marine, then a Yale Law school graduate and lawyer, and is now a boss in a Silicon Valley investment firm.  So the book reads like a twisted Horatio Alger tale, as his early life could have led him into addiction, unemployment or jail instead.  Vance’s ultimate point is that there is something wrong with ‘hillbillies’ (his word) that jobs or education or a better social structure won’t help.  He wants hill people to stop blaming government or businesses and look at themselves.  As such, Vance is another in a long line of people focusing on the ‘culture’ of poverty.  But this time he’s white.  This fits into a narrative that upscale conservatives have been pushing for several years now.

To start, there is no such thing as the ‘white’ working class, a phrase he uses frequently.  There are white people in different strata of the working class that come from different geographies.  The impact of the 40-year decline in real wages and solid blue-collar jobs is now impacting layers of the working class that never had to deal with it.   And this is happening especially in Appalachia, which had poverty even in the ‘go-go’ 1960s.  It is now being decimated, as are many other rural towns and “Rust Belt” blue-collar cities like Middleton, where Vance’s family moved.  Vance frequently compares some of the impacts of his life story to what also happens to black people, and that is certainly legitimate.  Economics knows no ethnic barriers when it decides to make itself known. 
AK Steel in Middletown, OH where Pawpaw worked
Vance’s narrative is not really about Appalachia, but about the people that left it.   The migration looking for work from the South to the North in the 1920s and 1960s didn’t just a happen to black people.  It included many Appalachian Scots-Irish families who wanted a better life, and moved north above Cincinnati on the ‘hillbilly highway.’  Vance’s grandfather (Pawpaw) got a job in the AK steel mill and they and many others were able to buy cars, homes and ‘stuff’ that would have been impossible in Breathitt County, Kentucky.  But they brought with them cultural values that clashed with those in their new northern communities.   

Vance insists that the Appalachians were different from the Ohio working class as their culture was far more extreme – though I do not see any comparisons in this book.  Vance’s mother became a drug addict; his steel-worker grandfather was an alcoholic.  Heavy drinking, as we know, is a point of pride in certain varieties of 'maleness.'  The families engaged in constant violent arguments - yelling, hitting and getting arrested.  Strangers who insulted their ‘honor’ drew fights.  ‘Hillbillies’ were always praising ‘work’ verbally but some did not want to work at all.  For males, education and wimping out on a fight to defend one’s ‘honor’ was ‘sissy,’ though his own grandmother and mother encouraged him to do well in school.  Vance’s mother ran through a long string of boyfriends and ‘husbands’ to the point where he had to move constantly from one house to another.  His own father quickly left, and he took the name of another step-father, who also left.  This instability was particularly damaging. Early pregnancies, dropping out of school, early drug use, large quantities of guns, arrests - all typical markers.  

This is where Vance’s story is valuable, as it describes the difficulties of growing up ‘hillbilly.’ The constant instability and emotional stress contributed to many human failures.  Things like doing a budget, not blowing money on Xmas presents and buying things carefully; what food was healthy; how ‘social capital’ works or wearing a suit to certain job interviews were beyond his experience.  His life at Yale was as a token working-class student with a southern accent who basically got to hobnob with very rich students and top professors through Yale’s generous endowment.  Yet it still never made him feel like he belonged.  He sees that the culture of the wealthy that he now inhabits and the one he came from are almost completely separate.  Vance pinpoints his grandmother (Mamaw) as the key to his survival – a swearing, gun-toting woman who stood by him, especially in the last 3 years in high-school when he left his mother to live with her.  He credits her with his ability to become an ‘anomaly’ in his community – not just one of the only ones to go to college, but the Ivy League at that.   

Vance is now a conservative – but perhaps one that thinks he is ‘compassionate.’  He supports pay-day lenders, for instance, because they provide a ‘valuable service’ to impoverished people who have no family or money to turn to.  Not a word about their extortionate interest rates or perhaps an alternative like Post Office loans.  Vance has written for the National Review, an arch intellectual journal of the elite.  He went to Iraq as a PR officer and has not one negative word to say about that disastrous war or the billions doled out to war profiteers.  He just felt lucky that he wasn’t Iraqi.  (You want to see poverty, he muses…)  Ostensibly a man of the world, he still calls the U.S. the ‘best country in the world” and seemingly wants to ‘lift up’ his people… sort of a George Washington Carver of Appalachia.  He is an atheist that upholds the church as a possible savior, given it is about the only institution in some towns that can provide practical help to parishioners - and only hints that its irrationalism is part of the problem.  Vance celebrates the Marine Corps for teaching him things he never learned at home, but ignores its real role in the world.  To Vance the lack of coal mining jobs does not mean that government should have a program to provide guaranteed jobs for coal miners, such as installing solar or wind or maintaining infrastructure.  Not a word.  

Vance’s approach ignoring economics will ultimately fail, as you cannot pull yourself up ‘by your bootstraps.’  Try it sometime – you body doesn’t get lifted, only your boot.  Culture is a condition of economic life and, while mobility is possible, even he recognizes that it is now less possible in the U.S.  Working class life in Appalachia is one of the hardest in U.S. rural areas… the recent opioid / suicide / alcohol statistics show that.  Yet conditions in Appalachia come in second to rural areas in Mississippi, Alabama and other southern states with large black populations.  ‘Hillbilly’ culture comes with cultural, emotional and educational baggage that cannot be changed overnight just by getting a job.  Conservative cultural definitions of being a 'man' or a 'woman' create problems in themselves.  Because sometimes ‘emotional poverty’ can lead a person to lose that job, and those stressors do not go away.  Oppression oppresses…and 'culture' can crush.  

What is apparent from the book is that, while having a job is not a magic bullet, having one provides economic stability which can translate into emotional stability at some point.  It is no accident that conditions in Middletown have become worse as AK Steel has downsized.  The two interact dialectically, but one cannot exist without the other.  Ultimately, cultural conditions for Appalachia cannot change until there is a movement that politically unites these communities against capital.  As you might remember, nobody was bitching about opioid use during the battle of Blair Mountain or during the Pittston coal strike.  Class struggle brings out the best in people and is the real road to revival.

Reviews of books on a similar topic, below:  White Trash,”Chavs,” “Rich People Things,” “Class Lives,” “Factory Days,” “Gray Mountain.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
March 26, 2017