Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Power of the Periphery

"Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” by Samir Amin, 2016

Amin is a unique theorist, combining Maoism, social democracy and progressive nationalism into an analysis of present-day imperialism.  This book combines an anti-imperialist analysis with a ‘geographical’ analyses – building on his earlier concept of the ‘center’ and ‘periphery,’ which updates the concepts of the ‘global North/global South,’ or the ‘1st world/3rd world’ dyads.   He rejects the Bolshevik Party’s ‘underestimation of the peasantry,’ citing Stalin’s forced collectivization as the ultimate breaking of the worker/peasant alliance.  This criticism includes Lenin and Trotsky as well.  Regarding the latter, Amin’s comments echo prior Stalinist critiques of Trotsky (an ‘academic Marxist’), as well as making Trotsky’s role in calling for political revolution in Russia invisible.   Amin:  “At the risk of sounding pretentious, I have been part of a small current on the left that that had broadly foreseen what came to a climax between 1989 and 1991.” 
Core and peripheries of global capitalism

Mao’s block with the peasantry and the anti-bureaucratic model of the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ are touchstones in this group of essays centered around Russia, as well as the 1955 Bandung Conference.   I will list his main points, as these are ideological writings based on history for the most part.

1.   The comparison of Russia in either Czarist times or under the Bolsheviks with ‘imperialism’ or empire in the capitalist West is a factually false comparison.  The Czar was actually less brutal to subject nationalities than the British (or American) colonialists, while the Bolsheviks forged a USSR based on the integration of many nationalities, not subject to economic exploitation.  Russia and China did not extract ‘imperialist rent.’  The dissolution of the USSR was actually carried out by only two counter-revolutionary leaders in Russia and Ukraine over the heads of the population.
2.   Imperialism is always for the dissolution or ‘independence’ of multi-national states it opposes (Yugoslavia, Russia, China, etc.) while seeing the independence of Scotland or Quebec or Catalonia as forbidden.  (Amin actually is against the independence of Scotland, oddly, as he thinks it is not really separate from Britain any longer.)
3.  Amin, being a Maoist, believes that Russia was and China is ‘state capitalist’ and that ‘state capitalism’ seems to be a progressive step on the road to socialism.  He believes that this entails a ‘new’ bourgeoisie – a state bourgeoisie, i.e. a new class suddenly developed out of government.  I won’t analyze this position in depth, but it would logically lead to fighting for ‘state capitalism’ as a progressive step.  Unity with the incipient state-capitalists will make the fight for socialism that much ‘longer!’  He calls Stalinism’s goal a ‘capitalism without capitalists.’ 
4.  Oddly, in his long, detailed, mostly social-democratic prescription for what should happen in Russia, he thinks a wing of Putin’s oligarchy might opt for independent development after the NATO coup in the Ukraine – a development which might continue the ‘long transition’ towards socialism.  In certain places he does echo Trotsky’s call for workers control and independent unions, though what he means by workers democracy is not clear given his adulation of the Cultural Revolution.  At one point he actually says that the first victims of the Soviet ‘realists’ were ‘communist militants.’
5.  Amin thinks the Bandung anti-imperialist conference in 1955 can reoccur out of a present alliance against the ‘triad’ – Europe, US and Japan - by the “Euro-Asian” block – China, Russia and anyone else they can pull in, like Iran and perhaps now Indonesia and Turkey.  He thinks ‘delinking’ from the economic clutches of the imperial centers is essential, which certainly makes sense.  However, given 60 years have passed since Bandung, it seems unlikely that the revolutionary nationalism of that time will manifest itself as anti-capitalist in the present period, as it did then.  Capital has swallowed nearly all of the globe in a quite literal way.   
6.  Amin understands, as nearly all leftist historians do, that the expropriation of the workers states and socialized property in central Europe and the USSR (and for him, China) came out of the majority wing of the Communist Parties - the enterprise managers and their political representatives. 
7.   Amin’s analysis is partly based on geography playing a role in why Russia and China first broke with world imperialism, although he insists that Russia was not in the ‘periphery.’ 
8.   There can never be a ‘one world government’ or state, or a fully-globalized unitary capitalism, as exploitation by the center of the peripheries is essential to its functioning.  He calls leftists who think we are going to have ‘one world’ naïve.
9.    Amin believes that Islamic political fundamentalism is a form of fascism.  As a former resident of Egypt, his opinion carries weight, as he has seen its functioning first hand.  Amin thinks that imperialists like the U.S. and Britain have been using Islamic fundamentalism for years against the working class, anti-imperialists and revolutionary nationalists.  This should come as a shock to those ‘leftists’ who have embraced Islamic politics as ‘anti-imperialist’ or ‘revolutionary.’ 
10.   The USSR only had military parity with the US./NATO block, but never economic or social parity, given it was not an imperialist power.  The ‘global class war’ was really a ‘global class defense’ against aggressive imperialism.  Amin does not find evidence that the Soviets or Chinese or Vietnamese ever wanted to export ‘revolution’ except in the form of national self-defense.  The Cuban effort in Angola against South African apartheid was to help a pre-existing revolutionary nationalist government, not something they instigated.  Even the isolated offensive effort of Che Guevara indicates that this was so. 
11.   Amin calls for a ‘Socialism III” after the collapse of the 2nd & 3rd Internationals.  However, he forgets the 1st and makes the 4th invisible.  Perhaps his number should be “V.” 
12.   Amin believes, unlike some previous socialists, that small-scale agriculture is viable in a workers state. 
13.   The destruction of the USSR and central European workers’ states after 1991 led to an explosion in the triad’s hegemonic military aggression and financial exploitation across the globe, while in Europe and in the U.S. liberalism and conservatism united against the ‘social wage,’ public ownership, labor unions, socialist ideas and working-class parties.  All you folks cheering for the destruction of the USSR? This is what you get. 
14.  Amin reminds us that the capstone to the push for ‘democracy’ in Russia was the disbanding and bombarding of the elected Duma in 1993 by Yeltsin’s military.   It was full of too many opponents of Yeltsin and the crash-course capitalism he advocated.  An assault cheered on by the ‘democratic’ U.S. press.  To top it off, the Communist Party virtually announced its capitulation by agreeing to the new Russian constitution.
15.  Amin indicates that the ideal of Liberalism is used by capitalism in the same way that the ideology of Socialism is used by bureaucratism (or in Amin’s words “state capitalism”) –  to hide reality.  American Liberals believe an ideology that has little connection to actual social reality for the vast majority, but it serves as positivist ideological cover for the whole project.

Altogether an interesting book by an eclectic Marxist thinker. 

Other books by Samir Amin Reviewed below:  "The Law of Worldwide Value" and "The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism."     Other book or event reviews or commentary on Russia:  "Russia & Stoli"'; "Soviet Fates & Lost Alternatives", "Ukrainian Pawns", "Women in Soviet Art" "Life and Fate," "Soviet Women," "Enemy at the Gates," "Ivan's Childhood," "Reinventing Collapse," How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin", "The Red Atlantis" and "Absurdistan.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 29, 2016

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Punishing Vegetarian Teenagers

Archaic Thanksgiving        

I was listening to NPR and what made me turn it off was this.  Prior to Thanksgiving, they had a little ‘cultural’ segment on Thanksgiving meals.  They addressed the question of ‘restricted’ diets, pointing out that this caused problems in ‘1/3rd’ of families, according to a mysterious panel of parents.  Now a ‘restricted’ diet could be for health reasons, for religious or political reasons, for cultural reasons.  The idea was that anyone who says ‘I’ll eat anything’ is the baseline non-problematic and ‘good’ way to be. 

Trying to Keep the Tradition Alive!
Food has become a political battleground, as anyone knows.  Problems with factory farming; drugs, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other additives in food; GMO methods, monocultures, global warming, food deserts, cruelty to animals, carbon production, health problems like heart attacks, strokes, hypertension and diabetes -  have all made food a war zone.  Turkey is not exempt from this.  Calling it ‘Turkey Day’ makes meat central, but that is a dodge.

Now people many times will eat food they don’t really want, to be polite.  The suggestion here was aimed specifically at teenagers who had become vegetarians.  They were encouraged by the mysterious panel of parents to make their ‘own’ dish to bring to Thanksgiving and share with everyone.  This is a very clever little punishment.  As Americans know, there are plenty of dishes on the traditional Thanksgiving menu that are vegetarian – yams/sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, pie, cranberries, green beans, corn, bread, even some stuffings can be made without meat.   Suggesting that the nasty vegetarian teenager bring in another unneeded vegetarian dish – when no one else has to – is the punishment.  Why not make the non-drinkers bring their own fizzy 'champagne' apple juice?  Or the damned gluten-free people bring their own bread rolls!  You can see where this ‘Thanksgiving’ is going…

When meat-eaters come to my Thanksgiving, I give them rock Cornish game hens or salmon.  No one complains.  I do not make the meat-eater ‘bring their own dish to share.’  As a parent I had vegetarian teenagers and we kept the meat separate from everything else.  Or else made a substitute meat dish.  Friends of mine who I eat with make a vegetarian entrée for me and everyone else.  It works.  But not for NPR… national government radio. 

Thanksgiving – like the 4th of July, “Labor” Day, Christmas and ‘Memorial’ Day – are archaic holidays that are deeply problematic and yet never quit.  Thanksgiving is supposedly based on a single meal shared by Puritans and native Americans.  Actually it became a national holiday after it was declared by Lincoln in commemoration of the Union victory at Gettysburg.  So the national media almost never mention this actual reason so as not to offend the neo-Confederates in our southern midst, and plays up a mythological ‘day of peace’ between Europeans and native peoples.  All the while this Thanksgiving we can watch live-streaming coming from Standing Rock showing police lined up on a bluff like the 7th Cavalry.  Police – the ‘Oil Protectors” and the “Corporate Protectors” - still out there defending the right to profit off global warming and clean water.  Thanksgiving is like the Red Wedding episode in ‘Game of Thrones.’  You sit down to eat a celebratory meal – and then you are slaughtered by the host.  For indigenous people, versions of the slaughter are still going on.

The nugget of Thanksgiving is eating a meal and sharing time with relatives and friends and even strangers.  Who can be against that?  Even with the endless articles about how to de-politicize the event or how to argue within families about politics.  Yet surrounding this normal human endeavor is a historical myth, and added to it is the watching of football and then shopping.  Football – a game that will be seen in the future much like boxing is now - crude and violent, loved by the military, damaging to the players and profitable to Big Sports in the extreme.  Now Big Sports is shedding crocodile tears over losing football viewers and we are supposed to be alarmed.  We should be thankful!  Then there is the push to go shopping on this day that is supposed be dedicated to ‘family?’  Even the Mall of America and some stores like REI are now seeing through this farce.   

A socialist movement will bring a new set of holidays that actually mean something, and change the meaning of the ones we have now or allow them to die a natural death.  Because these holidays are on their last legs, like so much of official society. 

Reviews of “Game of Thrones,” and books on the Civil War and commentary on NPR, below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
November 26, 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Contradictions

DID YOU HEAR A PIN DROP?

In the U.S. the contradictions are sharpening between capital and its 10% of adherents – the counter-revolution; and the working class in all its ethnicities and genders - the revolution.  This is not something dreamed up by Marxists – it is what happens naturally in an unequal, class-dominated society.  The full resolution of the contradiction is the victory of one side or the other.   That is dialectics.

Alongside this, conflict is also increasing between capitalist groups within the U.S. - look at our two parties.  Conflict is also increasing between national capitals.  The Eurozone, the middle East, Ukraine and north Africa are examples of that.  Imperial aggrandizement, economic stagnation, financialization, climate change and inequality are affecting the whole world.  It has contributed to the present wars and failed states. It is not some mirage.  

Social conflict and politics will increasingly take center stage, as normality, apolitical thinking and passivity become more and more impossible.  De-politicization is becoming passe. Escape will be less of an option.  Optimally, mass revolutionary organizations are needed.  Socialist methods and ideas are the only thing that can successfully resolve this contradictionUnions need to drop pretending things are normal.  Organizations need to band together and form fronts.  Working-class organizations need to do the same thing.  This is it...a corner has been turned.

Red Frog
November 15, 2016

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Democracy of Dunces

Caligula on the Potomac?  Berlusconi on the Anacostia?  

The U.S. ruling class has lost control of the narrative.  This is quite a feat.  Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, the corporate media, the leaderships of the Democrat and Republican Parties, the Washington “think” tanks, the neo-liberals and neo-cons – all failed at control.  The pundits and pollsters were all wrong.  Even the money-men were wrong.  The deep state intervened at the last minute in the form of the FBI and James Comey, a Republican supporter of Trump who was appointed by the ever so bi-partisan Obama, to give a nudge.  (And no, President Obama, we are not all on the same 'team.')  Only Michael Moore, Keith Ellison and one pollster saw what was coming.  Kudos to them.  But the solution was pathetic – a love letter to Hillary Clinton.    Sanders would have beaten Trump, but the ‘Democratic’ half of the ruling class had their nominee already appointed.

The Party Starts Now
Here is the 'silver' lining.  Trump may or may not do what he says.  The deep state will have a private conversation with him about that.  The National Security Counsel is not happy about his isolationism.  The bright side here is that the TPP is hopefully dead.  NAFTA ‘may’ get re-negotiated, but don’t bet on it.   Trump has vacillated on the issue of Social Security, but he will probably cave to both parties enthusiasm for 'debt' relief.  The ACA is now more vulnerable, as it’s costs were under the real control of Big Pharma and the health industry and that has become obvious to millions. 

War or direct confrontation with Russia in Ukraine and Syria is off the table for a short while – although elements of the state and the ruling class Parties still want that confrontation, so drones wars and interventions will continue, Trump or no Trump.   Will Saudi Arabia get more weapons?  They probably won’t need them after the enormous weapons buy under Obama.   Will millions of Latinos be deported?  Odds are the deportation schedule run by Obama will continue and increase - if that is possible.  After all, super-exploited illegal labor is the bread and butter of so many American businessmen, including Trump.  That may be the real reason mass deportations – like Japanese internment - will probably not occur.  That and massive resistance…

Trump, like a retarded ruling class figure, may get drunk in the White House, initiate toga parties, sleep with the interns, generally run roughshod over conventionality like some Roman ruler presiding over a declining empire.  For that is what we have here.  The ruling class is weak and has lost full control.  The Empire is in hollow hands, sort of like what happens when royals interbreed.  All will be televised in a reality show called “Trump House.”  But they will still take advantage of this disaster to the utmost.  Unfortunately the working-class forces arrayed against Trump and Clinton and their cronies are also weak.  The liberal/left are like Roman plebeians who married patricians, wandering the ruins after too many circuses – unable to unite, unable to get rid of an addiction to the smoking failure that is the Democratic Party, unable to form a coherent, organizational front , unable to mobilize even a section of the working class in a real way.  The leadership of the union movement is certainly a large part of that weakness, but black leaders are also behind the curve.  Will they have a ‘come to Jupiter’ moment?  I do not think so.  As to the actual Marxists, they are too small and divided to form a core to any present counter-attack.  

But that counter-attack will begin to occur now, willy nilly.  Not our President!  Revolutions are predicated on a society being unable to function normally and the future most see is anything but 'normal.'  I predict Trump will be besieged and worse. But certainly not from the 'bipartisan' majority of the spineless Democrats, who are still talking like its just another power transfer.

Another Democratic Party narrative and liberal political view has died too.  That is the ‘demographic’ argument.  I.E. we don’t care what the working class thinks – specifically in this case the ‘white’ part of the working class.   After all, all that matters is not class, just the color of your skin, your gender identity, your sexual proclivities or your age.  Let’s not talk about class!  The Democratic Party technocrats have danced around this maypole of ‘identity’ politics for years - but now the cows have come home to roost.  Some UAW staffers told me about 1/3rd of UAW members voted for anti-union Trump because of his position on trade.  Nationally union households voted for Trump in the 40+% range. And this is because Trump’s position was actually right.  Trump even won more black people, Latinos and women than Romney!

CLASS is the key to unity and victory for everyone in the working class, of whatever ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation.  We are the majority.  Ignoring that is the intention of the upper classes, because it results in 'divide and rule.'  

The liberal professional strata (and hysterical liberal websites like Salon, Huffington Post, the Nation, the Guardian, Alternet, MSNBC and hordes of shallow millionaire political comedians on TV) couldn’t get beyond Trump’s racist and sexist comments and see he was also making class-conscious arguments much like Sanders.  They thereby assumed every Trump supporter was merely a bigot.  By doing this they actually disqualified themselves from ever building any kind of a successful movement.  Obama won the same 6 states twice that Trump won yesterday, which proves the point that there is more going on here than bigotry.   On his last day campaigning in Michigan, Trump actually said:   Today the American working class is going to strike back, finally.”  Can you imagine the Wal-Mart lawyer in Clinton’s soul ever saying such a thing?  At least Trump had the more effective lie.  Again, this inability to think about class is INTENTIONAL. 

Black Lives Matter, the Dream Movement, the Standing Rock rebellion, Moral Mondays, Fight for 15, American Muslims, pipeline protesters, anti-fascist organizers, youth, maybe even strikers  – all are now ‘under the gun,’ by an emboldened law enforcement, bigots, rightist vigilantes or militias.  But the darkest part of this is global warming.  The Republican Party and Trump do not believe it is occurring.  Coal – that inky black rock – is to be brought back from the dead, if words are to be believed.  Unfortunately at this point only a revolutionary movement can actually change the environmental situation fast enough to prevent it by overthrowing the capitalist class.  And that movement right now is too fragmented to succeed.  Am I exaggerating?  Most scientists know our time is almost up.  Do you?

As to that ‘pantsuit’ thing.  Pantsuits are normally worn by business women, not working-class women.  The first time I saw them frequently was in a stock brokerage in the 1990s, sported by female managers.  Clothing says it all and stickers on Susan B Anthony’s grave don’t change that.  The bourgeois leadership of the 'feminist' movement did itself a disfavor by backing a war-mongering, Wall-Street loving corporate manager – but then that doesn’t matter to them evidently.   They should examine the iron ceilings and drop ceilings and drywall ceilings and plaster ceilings hanging above working class women's heads instead.

Glenn Greenwald and Thomas Frank said today, especially Greenwald:  The Democratic Party will try to blame everyone else, except the reflection in its own mirror. Don't let them.

Red Frog
November 9, 2016

Sunday, November 6, 2016

I Read a Liberal

“I Married a Communist” by Philip Roth, 1998

Roth is an expert in sociological and emotional fiction, tracking the life of Jewish people in Newark, New Jersey after World War II and beyond.  This book describes the tumultuous events that befell a single radical who came back leftist after the war and then collided with the McCarthy period.  His name is Ira Ringold, a big loud aggressive zinc miner who became a radio star.  Ira is one of those radicals who argues with everyone all the time.  The story is told by a young friend of Ira’s, Nathan, and Ira’s brother Murray.  Murray is an observant progressive high school teacher who thinks his brother is nuts.  The device of the ‘rational’ brother observing the radicalism of his kin is common in American fiction and this is no exception. 
Movies Lead to Books

Ira becomes a leftist in the Army when he meets an ascetic Communist Party hardliner, Johnny O’Day.  Ira returns home, finds his way into doing Lincoln impressions, then gets on a NY radio show as “Iron Rinn,” a show dominated by CP members.  Oddly enough, instead of marrying a working-class woman, he marries Eve Frame, a beautiful, neurotic film star and they live together in their upscale home in Manhattan.  As the marriage breaks up as it predictably would, Eve writes a book exposing Ira titled: “I Married A Communist,” under the authorship of two wealthy Republican friends, the Grants.  This book helps Ira lose his job and ultimately he ends his days selling colored rocks at a rock quarry in upstate New Jersey until he keels over dead.  

Like “American Pastoral,” (reviewed below) Roth has a fascination with the intersection of left radicalism and the Jewish experience in the U.S.  Why this book was written in 1998 is somewhat of a mystery.  But the impact of the anti-communist purges of the 1950s still holds sway in left/liberal circles, reflected in recent films like “Trumbo” & “Good Night & Good Luck.”  That fear is perhaps why so many of them refrain from Marxism and live in a cocoon of comfortable liberalism, just as Roth does.   The rich do not come out well in this book either, as the two central women, Eve and her harp-playing daughter Sylphid are dreadful characters in their own way.  Eve’s reactionary Republican friends the Grants fare even worse.

The real impact of the McCarthy period was not on the Hollywood 10 alone, as the liberal myth would have it.  This book riffs on that slant, as the people fired were cultural workers. It was primarily an assault on union members across the U.S.  For instance, 3,000 longshoremen were deported from the U.S. under the terms of the Walter-McCarran Act for being alleged Communist Party members.  In the unions, the Taft-Hartley anti-communist pledge was forced on unionists, which purged the unions of open leftists and destroyed left-led unions.  The Communist Party and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party leaderships were jailed at different times based on the Smith Act.  In 1954 membership in the CP itself was outlawed in the U.S.  All of this decimated American unionism and left the anti-communist ‘business unionists’ in control.  At this point we know the long-term results of that big business strategy - the defanging of U.S. unionism.

None of this is explicit in this book, only hinted at.  Roth is basically anti-radical in his portrayal of a specific kind of communism, though through his brother Murray Roth shows sympathy for Ira, flawed as Ira is.  Ira does follow every twist and turn of Soviet policy like the CP, which indicates that the American CP had no independent thinkers or perspective.  Roth in essence creates psychological depictions of radicals in order to dismiss them.  In this book, he even adds a vicious surprise at the end, as Murray reveals that Ira bludgeoned an anti-Semitic thug to death in an alley in Newark when he was younger.  To Murray, Ira had been running from his violent temper since, so Ira’s story becomes a story of emotions run wild, not politics.  Many readers, however, might not be as upset about this act of violence as the author is.

Let’s look at the two primary and only Communists depicted in the book.  Nathan finally meets the legendary O’Day, who lives in a tiny spare room in South Bend, Indiana, handing out leaflets to steel-workers coming off the job.  Nathan almost becomes converted into a labor radical upon meeting O’Day, instead of just being a University of Chicago student prey to a mentor who pushes ‘art for art’s sake’ and homosexuality.  O’Day is portrayed as a poverty stricken but relentless ‘monk’ of the revolution and indeed, there are communists like this.  When Murray calls O’Day to help Ira, O’Day denounces Ira as a sell-out, proving his intractable sectarianism. 

The other is Ira.  Angry, quarrelsome, never shuts up, physically threatening to his multiple enemies – the angry Jew as even Roth calls him.  There are communists like this as well.  They figure if they argue or give their opinion enough they’ll somehow convert people through their observations alone – a sort of idealism gone personal. Nevertheless you feel Ira is a down-to-earth, working-class man who is definitely kind to young Nathan and working class people in general. But no mass movement is in evident in the book, just these two personality types.  The one event that breaks this mold is when Ira takes Nathan to a mass Henry Wallace rally hosted by Paul Robeson early in the book.  Only here do you see that something more is going on. 

On reflection, the trauma of the 1948 Wallace campaign loss was the last time the CP ever endorsed anyone except a Democrat.  The failed independent Wallace campaign made them a permanent Popular Front party, appended to the Democrats like a leach to the leg of a very fat, very rich man – what we jokingly call at this point the ‘left wing of the impossible.’  For CPers being ‘close to the power’ in the Democratic Party seems to substitute for many things, especially after the 1956 Khrushchev revelations when the party shrank from approximately 75,000 at its height to 10,000 members.  Who knows what it is now, but it is far less than that. This nose for ‘power’ is important because for a time the CP proclaimed communism as ‘20th Century Americanism.’ They were coming off a war-block between the USSR and the U.S. and hence had respectability and even some power in normal society, while also fancying themselves an arm of the Soviet bureaucracy.  All this was quickly shattered after Hitler was crushed – an event ironically carried out mostly by the Soviet Army. 

This book reflects the destruction of that movement but in a narrow way, obscuring the sweep of what happened, turning it into an individual story about two communist ‘types.’  There is a telling statement in the book that implies that ‘few have ever met a communist.’  And so the confabulated ‘images’ of communists on American television, movies, in the papers or books substitute for people's real knowledge.   Roth here, in spite of being sympathetic, has not really contradicted that portrayal, so he helped build the prye too. Anyone in the Marxist movement long enough knows that communists come in all types of personalities, just like most people.  The title of the book is also the title of Eve’s book, and that is not an accident either.  Though the title is also a sad reflection on the destruction of a man by the 'Red' scare. 

Prior Roth book reviewed below, “American Pastoral,” which is now an even worse movie through no fault of his own. 

Red Frog
November 6, 2016  

Saturday, October 29, 2016

An Impossible Situation

"The Good Person of Setzuan,” by Bertolt Brecht.  Frank Theatre Premiere, October 28, 2016  (Directed by Wendy Knox, adapted by Tony Kushner)

This is a long, somewhat archaic play that actually speaks directly to the present.  It deals with the structure of a world presided over by ‘gods’ who want humans to do ‘good’ -  yet a world in which it is impossible to survive while at the same time doing ‘good.’  Getting money is the catch and the play’s constant theme, which is why the play is still relevant.  Given that we have to go back to a play written by a German Communist in the late 1930’s to talk clearly about how economics affects people shows the sad state of present theater. 
 
The Water Seller and Shen Te
As Erik Wright said in his book ‘Understanding Class’ about game theory, Marxists deal with ‘systemic power’ – i.e. ‘what game should be played.’  They do not just deal with the accepted institutional ‘rules of a given game’ or the even more low-level situational ‘moves within the fixed set of rules.’  The game itself is the issue and this is Brecht’s ultimate point.  What game do you want to play?   

The play was staged in the empty Rainbow Foods building on Lake Street in Minneapolis.  This was a large store bought by a competitor that owned a Cub grocery across the street, then closed it intentionally in order to drive more business to Cub.  The union workers at Rainbow were laid-off in the process.  Frank has staged the resulting large empty space as a homeless encampment – tents, mattresses, sleeping bags, junk, shopping carts… perhaps a sly commentary on that act.  You walk through this on your way to the play’s real site – the loading dock/shipping and receiving area in the far back of the store.  The loading dock has stairways, a huge fan hole, the dock doors and upstairs rooms, which all serve as the set.  Frank in the past was known for this kind of industrial staging, especially with plays dealing with poverty or hard politics.

Poverty is the norm in Setzuan (the original German spelling).  Shen Te is a young prostitute who shows hospitality to 3 gods by housing them for one night, and is given silver dollars in return.  Previously she had to sell her body in order to survive, though she knew it was wrong and optimistically hopes to make a change for the better.  Shen Te takes the money and rents a store, stocking it with tobacco.  However a horde of homeless relatives show up, who take things, thieve up the street and threaten her new livelihood.  The former owner has unpaid bills to a carpenter she had not told Shen Te about and he comes demanding payment.  Her new rich landlord lady knocks and demands 6 months rent up front.  Shen Te gives money to a young man she has fallen in love with, Yang Sun, money she borrowed from neighbors so he can be a pilot in Peking.  She gives out rice to the homeless.  She says she will testify to the police for Wang, the water-seller, who has been injured by the rich barber. She buys water from the water-seller on a rainy day.  She makes a deal with the barber to house her homeless relatives in his unused buildings, almost promising to marry him in the process.  The neighborhood loves her for these acts.

However, all this ‘giving’ makes it impossible to survive running the store, so she dresses up and pretends to be a penny-pinching and hardened male cousin, Shui Ta, to save the business. Through this device, the store begins to turn a profit by ending the charity process, and instead Shui Ta plays financial hardball.  Shui Ta ultimately appropriates some tobacco bales and starts a tobacco factory, employing the relatives and others, including Yang, her ‘lover’, and becomes a successful business person in Setzuan – the ‘king’ of tobacco.  Through this dual-identity device the play becomes a reflection of the battle between altruism and exploitation, between love and economic survival, between capital and something else, playing out internally.

In this play, Brecht is saying that capitalism and mercantile trading economies ultimately shape the psychological and social characteristics of the people in the ‘game,’ no matter what the individuals want.  Implicitly, everyone in society has dirty hands and cannot be completely ‘good.’  Even Frank Theatre accepts corporate donations, as they themselves point out. The real issue then becomes the degree of dirt. The water-seller, Wang, is the only person who exploits no one, but lives in rags with a damaged hand, though some say the water he sells is tainted…   

At the end of the play, after the dual identities are revealed, the cast asks the audience to solve this contradiction. Brecht is obviously hoping audience members will think that perhaps the ‘game’ is the wrong game and that a society not based on money might be a better alternative.  Unfortunately for most, the audience will perhaps leaven their money-consciousness with a bit more kindness, but leave the game unchanged.

This was a premiere and still a bit rough, but that is normal.  The play has well-sung songs as do most Brecht plays, some modern, but the words were difficult to understand.  One of the best scenes, reminiscent of the play “Oil and The Jungle,” was the song the workers sing while handling tobacco.  The humor is intermittent, the actors serviceable, the setting familiar to anyone who has worked in shipping, but perhaps exotic for others.

The play will run for the next 4 weeks.

Prior reviews of Frank plays:  Love and Information” and “Things of Dry Hours.”  A U of M play, “Oil and The Jungle,” reviewed below, as well as the book “Understanding Class,” both referenced here.  Use blog search box, upper left. 

Red Frog
October 29, 2016

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The ‘Harmonious Society’?

"China On Strike – Narratives of Workers’ Resistance,” edited by Hao Ren, Zohgjin Li and Eli Friedman

If Friedrich Engels was writing “The Condition of the Working Class in China” today he would use this book as some of his original source material.  This is a collection of interviews and some commentary on strikes in the Pearl River Delta around Shanghai, in Guangdong and Shenzhen provinces.  They reveal the actual conditions on the ground for the largest working class in the world.  Most of the strikes described here were from 2003 to 2011.  The authors contend that strikes are now more numerous and have moved into the interior of China.  This is because labor in the Delta has become more active and stronger, so factories there were shut down by capitalists to flee for safer havens. 
      
Real 'pink collar' workers in China
The conditions here are similar to what Engels described in the 1800s in England.  Rural workers forced into the city to work in factories – turning former peasants into factory laborers.  They then have to deal with forced overtime, bad food, low pay, illegalities, theft of wages, accidents, no unions, an unsympathetic government, police action, beatings, mass firings, hostile business owners and … growing resistance.

The strikes described here have a number of similar characteristics.  The workers telling the stories are mostly ordinary migrant workers, with only a few taking leading roles in strikes.  Most are from poor rural backgrounds forced to go to the city to earn money.  Most workers in these factories are young women, so their treatment is a proletarian feminist issue.  The strikes are mostly defensive and are similar to what happens at Wal-Mart or fast food franchises in the U.S., except more radical.  They involve factories of 30K to factories of 25.  Even one production line in a factory or smaller groups of workers will stop working.  They are mostly spontaneous, unorganized and militant strikes – what in the U.S. we call ‘wildcats.’  The workers block traffic, slow down production, shut off power, refuse to leave the plant or leave and don’t come back.  Sometimes a party or holiday atmosphere prevails.  Physical force is sometimes used in self-defense and bad supervisors are beaten in dark alleys.  The government unions are almost non-existent in these areas.  The police and other state forces are almost uniformly hostile.  Local government agencies like the ‘labor bureaus’ ignore the protests for the most part or urge workers to return to work as their ‘patriotic’ duty.  The media even informed on strikers in one instance, while in others they ignore the demonstrations. 

Workers in these stories did not fear being fired as much because there are so many factories that they could quit and go to another.  Many stories reflect workers going from factory to factory, although there are difficulties as companies will frequently not let them resign! The strikers fear being singled out, so they refuse to promote ‘representatives’ who will either sell them out or be attacked.  So they try to get the companies to negotiate with all of them.

The strikes are many times successful in small or even large ways, proving that shutting down production is what gets results – not filing lawsuits, petitions, arbitration or putting suggestions in a box.  However, no continuing organizations seem to exist.  Independent unions are not formed.  Independent socialist or worker’s organizations seem to be weak to non-existent and the evidence of a ‘left’ in the Chinese CP very elusive.  Yet the experience of the working class grows with each confrontation.  These actions were usually against private capitalist employers from Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, even the U.S., but also Chinese capitalists.  Those tall, beautiful glass towers in Hong Kong harbor that tourists love to moon over are the result of labor exploitation just across the water!  The Chinese work stoppages are focused on the very large private factory sector.  The state sector, which had active strikes earlier in the decade, is not portrayed in these strikes, but the authors contend they are also being influenced by these acts of resistance.

Specifics:  Worms or insects in the dormitory or canteen food.  Workers paying for their own required clothing or health care, even due to accidents caused by working conditions.  Paying for hot water in the dormitories.  Frequent wage cuts.  A wage rise accompanied by benefits’ cuts.  Non-payment of wages for months.  Inept or domineering supervisors.  Working forced overtime every day – even up to 17 hours a day.  Factories that shut down without warning, while the bosses flee, equipment is moved and wages go unpaid.  In this latter case, local neighborhood committees or local governments attempt to make up the difference, but usually don’t do it completely.    

Of most significance is the fact that even if some factories have better conditions (usually the high-end sector related to direct U.S. products), they cannot break the overall compact among the capitalist sector, as too high wages or benefits undermines capitalist unity across these Chinese localities. Low wages are the foundation of the development of the modern Chinese working class.  Many of these smaller factories are sub-contractors for the major factories and brands.  As such, the whole sector must control overall conditions or perish. This is the reason no program that only deals unilaterally with Apple products or Nike workers can raise general conditions or even their conditions. 

Of most significance is the role of the bureaucratic ‘workers’ state.  It does not generally kill, shoot, jail, blacklist or outlaw these actions outright, as is done in many low-end capitalist countries like India, South Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, etc. This reflects its contradictory class nature. For instance, Chinese laws on minimum wages or overtime exist to ameliorate conditions for workers, yet they are not enforced by the government. Workers have to enforce them by their own actions.  As mentioned, sometimes stolen wages are recompensed by local governmental agencies or bodies - but not fully. Occasionally the police lay-off peaceful protesters, but this is rare.   

The general purpose of the Chinese state in these geographic areas is to enforce severe labor discipline for the benefit of foreign and local capitalists.  Just the government’s legal treatment of migrant rural workers during this period – the ‘hukou’ system - reflects its own hostility even to the farmer/peasant strata, the former main base of the Chinese CP.  These conditions indicate that the Chinese state is not in the hands of the Chinese working class, but a bureaucratic strata quite clearly separated from it.

This strata must and will be replaced in power by a true political revolution led by the Chinese working class - a class that we see here in action.   This political revolution will allow the development of proletarian political parties, working-class democracy, independent unions, factory and geographic counsels and revolutionary Marxist politics – not some pale imitation. These developments can then spread this revolution beyond the borders of modern China.

Other books on China reviewed below.  Use search box, upper left, with word 'China'. Also a reviews of "Revive the Strike," about U.S. issues, below.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 25, 2016  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Who is Lester Nygaard?

“Fargo,” HBO, Season One

I guess ‘binge watching’ really is a thing.  It occupies the time of many workers, not just kids or college students with too much time on their hands.  Sort of a drug, better than religion, a form of escape.  Escape from what, you might ask?  The present U.S. social reality is certainly one item to avoid by long stretches in the dark room of television.

Yah, its way cold...
I watched “Fargo” on HBO, Season One, a story that takes one season to tell – which is actually an innovation in long-form television, as most stories extend year to year.  The series is inspired by the film of the same name, and bills the Cohen brothers as producers.  The same exaggerated Minnesota accents, snow-scenes and winter highways populate this film, as well as the conventional homey interiors, bad food and mundane lives of small towns in the state.  Hey, it's pretty real! Why the film is called ‘Fargo’ when it is set nearly all in Minnesota is probably a joke.  At least to most Minnesotans, Fargo in North Dakota is a much more benighted place than Minnesota’s Iron Range.  ‘Fargo,’ then, is kind of a feeling.

The key character is a nebbish insurance salesman named Lester Nygaard, a good Minnesota name, who lives in Bemidji, a real northern Minnesota town.  You might remember the prior nebbish in the ‘Fargo’ film was an auto salesman, Jerry Lundegaard.  So ‘sales’ seems to be the province of conventionally nice but wimpy men - who you might have to be on 'guard' for. Mild-mannered talkers, ya know.  These are not exactly working-class jobs but instead are jobs in which men attempt to ingratiate themselves for money.  After watching the whole series, you have to wonder – who IS this ‘typical’ small-town male?   Who is Lester Nygaard?

Into this idyll of conventionality roams death.  The reason Lester breaks the stereotype is he kills his irritating wife, and then is involved with a contract killer in the murder of the beloved chief of police and one of Bemidji’s leading creepy citizens, in a perfect non-conformist trifecta of violence, two of which take place over a few short minutes.  A stain of blood remains on Lester’s living room floor through the whole show, like some Lady Macbeth problem.  In “Deadwood” Swearingen was always wiping up blood stains on the wooden floors too, but here it takes Lester forever to even call a cleaning service.  Lester spends the rest of the series trying to hide his involvement, but then gets ‘too big for his britches,’ as they say in northern Minnesota, and that is his downfall.  How can something like this happen? 

The Cohen’s dark humor meditates on the ‘devil’ in a number of films, like Cormac McCarthy's ‘No Country For Old Men.’  Here there is indication that the devil is involved again, straight from the ‘garden of Eden.’  This is because the other key character is the sadistic killer Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton.  Malvo is a hired gun who is smarter and more ingenious than the slow-witted small-towners he deals with, which he proves while leaving bodies in his wake and not being caught.  Malvo escapes time and time again, making the FBI, some random hired syndicate killers and local Bemidji and Duluth police look like amateurs.  Which they are.  (Mal means ‘bad’ in French.)

Sensing a weak but ‘kindred’ soul, Malvo takes Lester under his wing and helps him cover up his murder of his wife.  Note that the initial dead are all the key authority figures in small towns – the top cop, the richest businessman and the queen of ‘home-life’ – the wife.  The real mystery is why this small-town schlup would work with a big-city assassin.  Evidently Lester’s marriage was a really bad marriage – and Lester didn’t know divorce existed.  Or perhaps … and I think this is the Cohen brothers point here … the ‘devil’ is in superficially ‘nice people who are really sociopathic creeps underneath.  So it is a slam against Small Town America, which is populated by supposed criminal syndicates (!) and defective losers.  Anyone reading the news knows that in the racist imagining gruesome murders, abductions and shootings are only the province of black neighborhoods in big cities. But they actually happen in sleepy little white burgs.  Then everyone says – and this happens even in the city: “He seemed like such a nice guy.”  Because it’s usually some ‘nice’ white guy who kept the curtains drawn.

Lester compounds his arrogance by eventually antagonizing Malvo in Las Vegas while Malvo is slickly setting up another profitable murder.  This fit of hubris leads to the death of Lester’s pretty Asian second wife – something Lester saw coming and avoided like a coward, sending his wife in his place.  So who is this detestable coward, Lester Nygaard? 

The pretension of the film is that it is a ‘true’ story, a statement which is part of the introduction for each episode.  This is not true, as nothing like this has ever happened in Minnesota.  A wood-chipping did take place on the East Coast in Newton, Connecticut, perhaps inspiring the initial story. Is this purely a cultural creation to perhaps undermine ‘small town values’ that are so celebrated, even though small towns are some of the most clannish and limited places in the country? No.  The dénouement turns that on its head.  One of the most frightened characters, a former Duluth animal control officer, surprises and kills Malvo on his own. So Small Town America ultimately gets its revenge on the big city and on one of its own traitors – though it takes awhile.

Who is Lester Nygaard?  The people of Bemidji are polite, humane, persistent but somewhat clueless at the same time. He is actually quite devious.  Nygaard himself is desperate to pretend nothing happened, to get back to normality while proving he is a ‘man,’ not just a salesman.  Lester ultimately comes across as part of the ‘diseases’ of the big city – divorce, violence, self-centeredness, deception.  The Cohens have crafted a conservative morality tale of murder and retribution where ‘small town values’ win. 

A great story, but not quite true.

I’ve lived in a number of small towns.  ‘Small town values’ are what is thrown into the face of leftists and liberals quite frequently by Republican politicians, and even some Democrats.  Given very little of the population of Minnesota and nearly every other state lives in a small town anymore, it is somewhat of an ‘anti-democratic’ plea.  Small towns don’t normally have factories, are dominated by a few wealthy families that own the biggest stores, ranches or farms and work with other small businessmen to run the towns.  The culture is limited to drinking in bars and television and perhaps hunting and fishing.  Young people escape if they can.  Most working-class people are dependent on the boss who ‘gives’ them a paycheck, so they normally see things the boss’s way. Outsiders are just that – outsiders.  Anti-intellectualism is normal.  Religion is still taken seriously.  Mostly these towns in the U.S. are white or white-dominated, as in the South.  There are of course some benefits to small towns, but politics is not one of them.   

So I’m thinking my take on ‘small town values’ really lean more to Sinclair Lewis’s version than the Cohen’s version.  Sinclair Lewis made fun of the small town U.S. in the novels "Babbitt," and "Main Street," his fictional recreation of the insular and business boosterism of towns like Sauk Centre, Minnesota.  There are large bits here of this view in "Fargo", but ultimately the 'salt of the earth' prevail.  Whether they really should or not is another matter. 

Reviewed below:  Prior Cohen film: “Hail Cesar.”  Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God,” “Suttree,” “The Road” and “All the Pretty Horses.”  Other television long-form dramas reviewed – “Deadwood,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Wire.”    

Red Frog
October 20, 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Religion Scores Again

Female Genital Mutilation  (FGM) II

I am following up on a previous post on this brutal practice directed against women mostly in the global South, but also in diasporas in the global North.  That post took issue with the claim that FGM was a 'cultural' ‘African’ practice, a perhaps racist idea put forward by a celebrated liberal apologist for religion, Reza Aslan.  Aslan is an Iranian-American religious studies scholar that converted to Evangelical Christianity and appears as a liberal Christian on many television programs.  He serves to give an intellectual cover for all religions.  Not coincidentally, he is a member of the Counsel on Foreign Relations, (CFR) one of top organizations which the ruling class uses to … rule.  Odd, that, but shows to what extent the ruling class embraces religion.

200 million women & girls have been subjected to various forms of this bloody procedure.  Its effect is deleterious to a women’s physical, emotional and sexual health.  It is meant quite clearly to destroy women’s sexual desire so that they will not ‘stray’ from a marriage.  It is one of the most damaging male chauvinist practices on earth, right up there with honor killings and mutilations and rape.  A recent survey conducted by the Population Counsel centered on Africa shows a very close symbiosis between Islam and FGM in this central African geographic area.  The survey is hampered by lack of information from some countries, and exclusion of other parts of the world, like south and southeast Asia.

Here is the map:
 What does the map tell you about the relation between Islam and FGM?  Here are the percents of Muslim residents, per country, per Wiki.

Highest Green Level of FGM:
Somalia – 99% Muslim
Sudan – 97% Muslim
Djibouti – 94% Muslim
Mali – 90% Muslim
Egypt – 88% Muslim, rest Coptic/Orthodox
Guinea – 85% Muslim
Sierra Leone – 78% Muslim, 20% Christian
Eritrea – 48% Muslim per US Govt.

Next Highest Brown Level of FGM:
Mauritania – 100% Muslim
Burkina Faso – 60.5% Muslim
Ethiopia – 33% Muslim, 43% Ortho Christian

Yellow Level of FGM: 
Chad – 53% Muslim
Cote d’Ivoire – 40.2% Muslim

So just starting with Somalia, it is a 99% Muslim country in which 98% of the girls are cut.  A large number of Somalis have moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, my home town.   It is widely known here that some girls are sent back from Minneapolis to Somalia for ‘vacations’ in which they are mutilated, then flown back.  This shows the extent to which this tragic practice is ingrained in the religious/ethnic culture. 

There is missing data on other Gulf countries, but some is available.  In Oman, 90% of females have been mutilated (Oman is right next to Saudi Arabia). Kurdistan has a 72% level of FGM in some areas.  Many Kurds practice Sunnia and Shia brands of Islam.  In Kuwait, 38% of Sunni women have been subjected to the process.  Yemen has 30% rates.  And so on.  These are all Islamic-dominated countries with almost no Africans.  

What is clear here is that Islam plays a major role in the perpetuation of FGM, as mostly Muslim countries rank the highest in its prevalence.  This contradicts Azlan’s contention that it is a purely ‘African’ practice.  It is a practice which is 'unique' to central Africa where Islam is predominant.  It is not prevalent in all of Africa, which indicates it is not merely 'African.'

If we look at the statistics in south and southeast Asia – which are not on this map, and where there are few Africans or of African descent – the prevalence of FGM there is more obviously linked to Islam. 

India – 97% of Bohra Shia females. 
Pakistan - Overwhelming majority of Bohra Shia females.
Indonesia – 97% of Muslim females.
Malaysia – 93% of Muslim females.
Wikipedia notes that FGM is practiced by many Muslim communities in other south-east Asian countries, but they do not have exact statistics. 

Obviously Christianity and animist religions also play a role in Africa, especially in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya, which says something about religion in general.  Religion itself leaves the door open to the oppression of women, as demonstrated by the practice of FGM by religious groups, but especially Islamic ones.  Mistreatment of women is the Achilles heel of all conservative religious tendencies – including Christian, Jewish, Mormon, Amish et al.  But its high prevalence among Muslim communities indicates a oppressive male attitude towards women on the part of the ruling elite.  This is something progressives and feminists cannot ignore, no matter how much Islam stylizes itself as the ‘religion of peace.’   

This  of course does not negate defending Muslim people from violent attacks and police actions in the U.S. or abroad carried out by imperial or chauvinist forces.  

P.S. - Recently the Russian government found out that FGM is common in Dagestan, a republic on the Caspian Sea.  There is an Islamist/Salfist insurgency there similar to Chechnya.  It intends to implement Sharia even against the Sufis and other ethnicities who are more secular.  Dagestan is 83% Muslim.

Red Frog
October 13, 2016