Monday, December 1, 2008

BUST THE BAILOUT!

Bust the Bailout!

Lunch Hour Protest, US Bank, 800 Nicollet Mall, 12:00 Noon, December 3, Wednesday -

U.S. Bank is receiving $6.6Bn of the massive $700Bn (or $7.5 trillion) bailout passed by a bi-partisan Congress, even though the bank was not having financial difficulties. Wells Fargo got $25Bn. Meanwhile, people are still losing their homes all over the metro area. Foreclosures and mortgages are at the financial heart of the present financial crisis. Make the benefits trickle up, not down!

Tell U.S. Bank to use this windfall to help the community by enabling homeowners and tenants to stay in their homes, not to enrich their shareholders, pay higher executive bonuses or buy other entities. Remember, this money is OUR tax money, and we have very right to make demands of U.S. Bank management about how it is used.

Sponsored by Economic Crisis Action Group

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Time for an Economics Primer!

CRASH COURSE ON THE CRASH
What led up to this economic crisis?Whose fault is this, and why did rich bankers get bailed out?Crash Course on the Crash is an educational event to help the community understand the complex world of the US economy. People's economist* Karen Redleaf will explain the ways deregulation and complex financial dealings have led to the downfall of financial institutions and massive home foreclosures.

A panel of representatives of groups most affected by this crisis will discuss their experiences... ACORN, Welfare Rights Center, PoorPeoples' Economic Human Rights Campaign, Dave Riehle.

Music provided by internationally-known folk singer Larry Long. Get involved in taking back our economy! Plans to picket Wells Fargo, US Bank, Hennepin County Sheriff's sales and evictions in the works.

Saturday, November 222:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.Walker Church3104 16th Ave S, Minneapolis. Childcare and snack provided. Tabling and social hour following event. Organizations wishing to table at this event can call 651-644-1173 for more information.

Sponsored by Economic Crisis Action Group

*Karen Redleaf holds undergraduate and masters degrees in economics. She worked for years as an options trader and hedge fund researcher in the financial industry until she quit in disgust. She specializes in explaining economic concepts in plain language.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Results Just In!!!!

November 4, 2008 -

U.S. Capitalism Wins, U.S. workers lose!

Stay tuned for details...


From the gang at MayDay ... Craig, Tom, Earl & Co.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

An Insider's Look at Big Pharma

Book Review: The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What To Do About It, by Marcia Angell, M.D., 2004

“Prescription drugs are an essential part of modern medical care. Americans need good new drugs at reasonable prices. Yet the pharmaceutical industry is failing to meet that need. There is a widening gap between its rhetoric and its practices. Driven by its lust for profits, it seems almost bent on eventual self-destruction. Its current way of doing business is not sustainable. …Those who pay for drugs – government, insurers, and individuals – simply do not have the money to continue to support the industry in its present form. And the public is angry.” --- from Marcia Angell’s The Truth About the Drug Companies.

In this revealing exposé of the drug companies, Dr. Marcia Angell brings to light questions that American consumers of pharmaceutical have been asking in recent years. Why are drug prices so high? How effective are the new medications being advertised by drug companies? Have the drug companies gotten too powerful and corrupt?

During her two decades at The New England Journal of Medicine, most notably as its editor-in-chief, Dr. Angell has been witness to the ever-increasing power of the huge pharmaceutical industry, known as big pharma, and the weakening position of the American drug consumer. In writing this book, one central aim was to debunk big pharma’s repeated assertion that high drug prices are necessary to fund their research and development (R&D) of new drug production. According to Dr. Angell’s research into the practices of the pharmaceutical companies, the amounts spent for the heavy advertising of drugs outstrip R&D by a long shot, as do the astronomically high profits garnered by these companies.

By way of comparison, big pharma spent 14% combined worldwide sales on R&D, but had a profit margin of 17% of sales, a whopping profit margin that compares extremely well to other industries. More surprisingly, the drug companies spent 31% of sales on marketing and administration, most of which is represented by the marketing of their drugs to the public. Clearly, as Dr. Angell asserts, the drug companies could cut into advertising or profits to bring down drug prices. But in this industry, securing high profits is the ultimate goal.

Once we learn that R&D is small compared to marketing and profits, Dr. Angell then emphasizes that R&D still amounts to a lot of money – about $31 billion per year. What do we get for this money, which we supplied to Big Pharma by paying high drug prices? As it turns out, not very much. Despite the hyping of their innovative drugs, most of the new drugs promoted by big pharma today are what Dr. Angell calls “me too” drugs. “Me too” drugs are slightly changed variations of already produced drugs. For example, there are today five different anti-depressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – SSRIs) that differ by a molecule or two, produced by different companies. Dr. Angell’s argues that these drugs have not been shown to be improvements over one another, since they have not been tested against each other. In clinical trials that are increasingly controlled by the industry, the drugs were only shown to be better than a placebo. Instead, we have no idea how they compare. And we have no idea if the money spent on their clinical trials was worth it. Nonetheless, the drug companies spend billions of dollars to convince us that their drug is preferable and worth its high cost. Meanwhile, there is a generic version of Prozac on the market that costs a fraction of what the other SSRIs cost.

Probably most revealing in Dr. Angell’s research is the sheer concentration of power held by big pharma. These companies have secured unprecedented power in D.C., employing an army of lobbyists that greatly influences the policies of Republicans and Democrats alike. In the 1980s, with passage of Hatch-Waxman, big pharma was able to extend the life of its patents and FDC exclusivity rights, the time that a company can produce a drug without competition from low cost generics. Also, with their growing marketing power, the drug companies have been able to organize “educational” activities for doctors at medical conferences that claim to educate medical practitioners on their drugs. However, these seminars are really marketing opportunities that use third-rate research to push unapproved uses of drugs. During these “educational” seminars, doctors and what the industry labels “thought leaders” receive kickbacks, lavish dinners, and entertainment. Big pharma’s power has gotten so big, it can determine through its marketing arm what doctors prescribe and even how studies of its drugs are conducted in clinical trials.

In response to big pharma’s problems outlined in her book, Dr. Angell recommends six very reasonable reforms of the industry:
1. All new drugs be tested against older similar drugs, not just placebos. This requirement would ensure that the industry not waste important resources on “me-too” drugs.
2. The FDA should be reformed as an independent agency, supported by the public and not by compromising user fees paid by the company for every drug approved. This reform would counteract the industry’s current influence.
3. An Institute for Prescription Drug Trials should be formed as part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which would eliminate the overwhelming power big pharma has over the clinical trials of its drugs.
4. The length of time companies have for monopoly exclusivity rights should be lessened from its current twenty years, with the change that the clock start ticking when drugs come to market. Having the clock start at when the drug is brought to market, not when the drug is first patented, would help ensure that the clinical testing stage not be shortchanged. Lessening the time companies have for exclusivity rights will help lower costs by allowing generics into the market sooner.
5. Big pharma needs to get out of the medical education business altogether. What counts as education for big pharma is really marketing. Medical institutions need to take responsibility for medical education of drugs, not drug companies.
6. Big pharma needs to open the books on resources spent on R&D, broken down on how much was spent on each drug, and how much was spent on each stage of its research. Likewise, the public has a right to know how much is spent on marketing and administration, broken down in great specificity, so that drug companies are unable to make false claims in justification of high drug prices and ultimately hide important information from the public.
7. Lastly, drug companies need to establish reasonable and uniform pricing. The current system, which charges the poor and most vulnerable the highest prices and gives discounts to larger buyers, allows for too much fraud, kickbacks and price gouging.

What is not considered in her last chapter on reform is the possibility of nationalizing this very important industry. My guess is that Dr. Angell believes that her reforms are sufficient, and moreover to achieve their approval, we would need a powerful movement demanding them. If these reforms were not on the agenda, she might say, neither would be nationalization. However, it could be argued that the very reason that these reforms are impossible in the current political climate is that an industry we rely upon for our health is in the business of making a whopping profit and using its muscle to determine the political process. As with the health care system, where we need to take out the private insurers, the drug companies that distribute our drugs should be nationalized under worker and consumer control. Afterall, as Dr. Angell reveals, the real work of bringing these drugs to market is already done by government institutions, taxpayer-funded universities and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Nationalizing the drug companies would be one guarantee of Dr. Angell’s reforms and make the industry directly accountable to the people.

Dr. Angell ends her book encouraging a movement to bring about change. She writes, “The pharmaceutical industry has enormous clout, but what finally matters most is concerted public pressure.” One way for the public to begin building that movement is through education. Reading The Truth About the Drug Companies is one step to building that movement.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Movie Review: Religulous, by Bill Maher

Move Review: “Religulous” by Bill Maher, 2008

Religion has played a large part in the offensive by the U.S. right-wing for many years, since Operation Rescue started picketing clinics in the 80s. Christian fundamentalism forms the ideological core of the Republican right. The other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, have been used by the Israeli right wing and the fundamentalist Jihadi Islamic right wing to justify their politics too. In essence, religion is being used as politics by other means, while claiming to be ‘God’s word.” This, of course, is not a recent development.

Bill Maher, the left libertarian comic who use to pray to ‘God’ to get him out of fixes in the 90s, has now turned against his former ‘get out of jail free’ card. His father was Catholic, and he grew up that way until the family left the church due to the prohibition against birth control. Only much later did he find out his mother was Jewish, which was why she didn’t go to mass.

This movie is like Michael Moore or Borat going to the Creation Museum in Nashville – an extension of the left-wing confrontational documentary. Maher stuns, as he doesn’t always interview people like a polite shmoo. When he rams them upside the mind with an agnostic comment, they are usually rendered speechless. This happens over and over again, like him asking the fundamentalist Christian who ‘saves’ gays if he got a hard-on embracing Maher? Or coaxing a Congressman to say that “You don’t need an IQ test to get in the Senate” after the congressperson endorses creationism. Or catching an Islamic guide at the Dome of the Rock mosque feigning tolerance, while forbidding Jews from visiting the mosque. Or an ex-Jew for Jesus hoping the world will be destroyed so ‘he’ can be with Jesus. And don’t get Maher started on Mormonism – which doesn’t have a single historical or archeological fact to support it. He interviews two former Mormons who had to suffer banishment from their families to leave the church.

Maher doesn’t look into Hinduism or Buddhism or Shinto, as probably it would make the film twice as long, but he does interview dozens of practicing Western religionists to highlight their absurdity. Maher’s own position is ‘agnosticism’ – as he says, his position is ‘doubt.’ However, there is not much doubt that God does not exist. God is a hypothesis, that, while possibly true, has no evidentiary backup, as they say. Maher is a comic and social critic, but not a hard-core atheist, so his ‘get out of jail’ free card in US society is this ostensible ‘doubt.’ However, when was the last time in recent U.S. history that ANY public figure was allowed to doubt God? We’d have to go back many years to Paine, Twain, Ingersoll and the broad tradition of American freethinkers to find anything comparable. For instance, Sam Harris is hardly recognized in the U.S., and rarely interviewed – so more power to Bill Maher. When old Larry King talks to Bill Maher on CNN about religion – that is remarkable. Of course, if Bill wasn’t funny, he probably wouldn’t be on.

Atheists and agnostics are now 16% of the population – about 48 million out of a population of 300 million. More than Jews, Muslims, gays, African Americans – even more than the 41 million Latinos in the U.S. Yet they are invisible, ignored and disliked by the mainstream political parties. Quelle surprise!? Well, they never interview peace activists or union activists or socialist economists either. No surprise at all. It is part of the political homogeneity enforced in this suffocating culture.

For the stumbling centrist Christian who doesn’t understand why the agnostics and atheists are PISSED, this is a good film. Maher calls them, at the end, ‘fellow travelers’ to the fundamentalists of all stripes. His ending point is that what we now experience as religion in the public field is a ‘counter-indicator’ for human survival and peace. (As if it has ever been much else.) Since the middle ages it mostly throttled human progress, and not much has changed to this day.

Red Frog – 10/13/2008
And I did not buy it at May Day books!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Book Review: "Commie Girl in the OC"

Book Review: “Commie Girl in the OC”, by Rebecca Schocnkopf, 2008

Rebecca Schocnkopf got a nice blurb from Mike Davis, a real LA Marxist, on this book. This book is published by Verso, an English house which publishes a lot of left wing literature. And you gotta love that title! Makes us seem almost human.

Well, it is more like “Obama Girl in the OC” really. Even a liberal Democrat in Orange County comes across to the uber-conservative denizens of OC as a ‘communist.’ They can’t tell the difference. Think the black use of the word ‘nigger.’ I’ll take your insult and make it my own!

Schocnkopf works for the alternative “OC Weekly,” and the book reads like a series of newspaper columns. Orange County is the kind of place that gave birth to the John Birch Society, then went bankrupt in 1994 investing in risky and obscure Wall Street Securities because of their own lovable Proposition 13. Sound familiar? A place where television demands we pay attention – to their housewives or their choppers or their rich teenagers. Evidently, it’s cheaper to film there for Hollywood. A place that was the headquarters for the main mortgage companies involved in the sub-prime meltdown. Sick of these fucks yet? Schocnkopf, however, humanizes the place, at least showing us that not everyone in the OC is a reactionary Barbie doll with a giant house ready to burn down.

There are real people here and there, sandwiched between the upscale Republicans. And Schocnkopf is one of the more real, with her insecure self-image and crushes on lame politicians, her love of free journalist food, her strange child, and her commie mom. One of the most touching stories is that of the female owner of a local rock club, Linda’s Doll House, making the decision to close the place. The bar played a role in community- keeping people sane in a culturally inhospitable environment. Schocnkopf writes about porn stars, local politicians, Arnold and Sacramento, roller skating, women-drinking, NASCAR, American Idol, namedroppers and namedropping, OC comedians, embryos, homelessness, the War on Xmas, AIDs, anti-marijuana campaigns, local rock ‘stars’ and you get the idea. Liberal comedy over the culture wars, like Molly Ivins, but without the focus. Cultural studies majors should pay attention.

Schocnkopf only writes about workers once – drunk ones at the Doll House. Not much for a Marxist. She’ll have to work on that.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog – 10/12/08

Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Reviews: Upton Sinclair Lewis Books

Book Reviews: The “Two Sinclairs”
The (uncensored) Jungle, by Upton Sinclair and

“It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis

Odd how many leftist fiction writers there were back in the ‘old’ days. We’ve certainly grown up, haven’t we? Why, we can now choose a wide array of books about deep personal problems, addictions, mental illness and criminal behavior. Or, for the high-brow audience, perhaps a delightful and intricate, oh so erudite, mousetrap mediation on individual or historical curiosities. It can’t get any better than that!

I exaggerate about the state of modern 'recognized' literature, but not much.

These two books were written at different times in history – “The Jungle” in 1906 and “It Can’t Happen Here” in 1935. However, both reflect periods of immense working class activism, which is probably why they became subjects of literature, and what links them together today.

THE JUNGLE

“The Jungle” is the most well known. It has been referenced as THE source for Teddy Roosevelt-era regulation in the meat and food industries to protect consumers from tainted or inaccurately labeled food. However, the thin version of The Jungle that ‘might’ have been read in high school was actually a censored version, missing almost 5 chapters, or 1/3rd of the book. The publisher Macmillan demanded the cuts of Sinclair, a Socialist, as they wanted a muckraking book on the meat industry, not a muckraking book on treating workers like meat. Because, of course, the ‘jungle’ is the society created by capitalism, in which the packinghouse and slaughterhouse workers work. As Sinclair says, “The jungle is not the packing house or Chicago … it is Civilization.”

The unexpurgated edition was first discovered by Gene DeGruson of Pittsburg State in Kansas in 1980. DeGruson’s work was based on versions serially published in the Socialist “Appeal to Reason,” newspaper, which were found molding in a basement in Girard, Kansas. In the introduction, an analysis of the texts by Kathleen De Grave, also of Pittsburg State, shows most of the cuts were related to removing explicitly Socialist and working-class problems from the book. This Sharp Press edition is the first time the uncut version has appeared in paperback.

This book stands as one of the preeminent Socialist novels in American history, or perhaps THE preeminent one. It has recently inspired Eric Schlosser to write “Fast Food Nation,” an update of The Jungle, though without the specifically Socialist analysis. Schlosser shows conditions, especially in the slaughterhouses of factory meat, haven't improved much. Sick cows are routinely turned into food. Full of corn and antibiotics, they are the 'normal' fodder of the modern slaughterhouse. Schlosser also shows the lives of the undocumented and low-paid non-union workers, where overtime, accidents and abuse are common. Since the defeat of the packinghouse workers unions in the 80s during the P-9 strike in Austin, conditions in the factory meat industry have only grown worse.

This is the hardest book I have ever had to read, because of the amount of human misery contained within. Sinclair takes a giant Lithuanian immigrant farm boy, Jurgis, and throws at him everything capitalism can throw – poverty, prejudice, hunger, injuries, death, prostitution, the abuse of children, jail, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and a corrupt political system. It is clear that the brutality shown to the animals in the slaughterhouse is the same brutality shown to the workers. Gruesome scenes on the kill floor - where you have to eat your lunch as splashing blood gets in your food - don't take a back seat to shivering vagrants, crippled children, crooked bartenders, brutal police and sly real estate agents.

Jurgis, of course, eventually becomes part of the mass Debsian Socialist movement in Chicago, which was leading strikes and winning votes during that period across the United States. In that, it has an 'uplifting' ending - though he has to watch his wife and son die in the process. As such, you realize there really is no such thing as a 'happy' ending.

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE

Sinclair Lewis was a different kind of Sinclair – a mild reformist or socialistic liberal, but an honest observer at that. He, of course, gently ridicules Upton Sinclair in this book, but also shows great affinity for the Grange and the Farmer Labor Party. Lewis is most famous for his novels making fun of small town boosterism and insularity like Babbitt and Main Street – Lewis was sort of a an inspiration to Garrison Keillor. However, the novel “It Can’t Happen Here” is rarely taught or mentioned in regard to Lewis, because it is far more radical.

“It Can’t Happen Here” is about the coming of fascism to the United States, and is far better regarding detail than Jack London’s “The Iron Heel.” The title, of course, refers to the clueless liberal that can’t imagine really bad things going on in this country. Sinclair is hilarious in his depiction of the different types of political animals in this small town in New England, Fort Belulah … people that eventually have to choose sides, and become either fascists or resistors. Lewis’ version of fascism is not foreign or "Germanic" at all – it is part religious, part patriotic, part conformist, part greedy and part a longing for a ‘strong man.’ And behind it all, all corporate. These people are recognizable Americans. It is nothing different than the instincts we see now among Republicans or the religious Right. The instincts are compounded in his depiction of a classic fascist formation - rabid armed force in the form of a brown-shirt militia, ironically called the “Minute Men." In the book, the descent into fascism is a gradual process, not a sudden shift. The head of the U.S. fascist movement – Berzelius Windrip - is brought to power by a ‘vote’ of the population – just as Hitler was voted into office in German. And then things start to change drastically.

Lewis’ small town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup eventually joins the underground resistance, which, it becomes clear, is the only way to fight fascism. He goes from town to town and safe house to safe house, organizing across the northern part of the country. Canada plays a role in this book - as it did as an escape hatch for anti-government native Americans prior to the Civil War; in the anti-slavery fight in the 1860s, and the anti-war movement in the 1960s - as a rear base for the opposition to U.S. fascism. He ends the book with Jessup holed up in a cabin in northern Minnesota, on the run from the brownshirts. Jessup is kind of a picture of Lewis – truly a middle-class individualist liberal, antagonistic to communists and other radicals, but understanding that only underground work and armed defense will suffice to oppose fascism. He does not join the fascists, nor does he collapse in fear. The key working class character in this book, however, is shown as prone to fascism. The leader of the Minute Men in Fort Beluah, Shad Ledue, is Jessups’ former gardener and handyman – his ‘hired’ man and an “Irish-Canuck.” Other workers, socialist and communist, are not so highly profiled, except as they bicker endlessly about who’s right.

This book wears well even now, and continues to address the problems the U.S. population faces. Some people on the left, of course, are always howling about fascism being 'here', because they do not have a scientific analysis of fascism. It is the unrestricted rule of capital – and I stress the word ‘unrestricted’ – unimpeded by court, law, ethics or force of arms. Presently, we are losing more and more legal rights, so the gradual slide towards authoritarian rule is already somewhat advanced.

The news that Bush has recently called for deployment of the battle-ready 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Infantry Division, to put down ‘civil unrest,’ including using ‘non-lethal means,’ should make anyone pause. It has been illegal under The Posse Comitatus Act since the end of the Civil War for troops to be posted as a standing force of law enforcement inside U.S. borders. However, this deployment is supposed to be permanent! It was authorized by the Defense Authorization Act of 2006 – a law supported by the Republican Party and many liberals like Kennedy, Warner and Levin. Only a small minority of Democrats like Patrick Leahy warned against it. The preparation for possible fascism or repression is already bi-partisan.

Red Frog
9/27/08
… and I bought them at May Day books!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Book Review: Take the Streets

Book Review: “Take the Streets” by Ed Felien, 2008. (See advertisement below review.)

According to reports, Eddie wrote this short chronicle of the local anti-war uprising at the University of Minnesota in May 1972 right after the events. The uprising was in response to Nixon’s escalation of the air war in North Vietnam, and the mining of Hai Phong harbor. It might have been sitting in a shoe box every since, but we’re glad he finally published it. It is on sale at May Day books, and Eddie will give an ‘author talk’ on Sunday, Sept. 28 at 3:00 p.m. at May Day. Be there!

Millions participated in the events of 1972 – they were the largest demonstrations against the war in the U.S. If you were here locally in 1972, or even if you weren’t, and you want to compare events then and perhaps events at the RNC in August, this is a useful book. While liberals and even some radicals pooh-pooh barricades and confrontations between protesters and police, events like this are actually crucial tests of power between opposing sides. Most people don’t think taking and holding an intersection or street is ‘much’ or should be valued, but it is actually a small form of ‘dual’ power – just as a factory, building, neighborhood and land occupations can be forms of ‘dual power.’ Blocking traffic is a small thing, but it nevertheless calls into question the PHYSICAL control of the society by the armed forces, starting with the police. At bottom, when everything else breaks down – bribery, propaganda, gradualism, inertia, etc. – physical control is all that is left to the ruling powers.

Felien and the radicals at the U in 1972 understood this instinctually. The anti-war movement took and held Washington and University Avenues for several days, ultimately using barricades. Felien details each confrontation - the throwing out of the Army recruiters in Dinkytown; the attack on Romney and the new Cedar Square towers on the West Bank; the occupation of Interstate 94 at rush hour; and the back and forth between the police, Guard and protesters over control of University and Washington Avenues, including the key building, the ROTC building. The most interesting event to me (I was a participant in SDS at the time) is the stopping by students of a delivery of crates of M16s intended for the Guard! After some confrontation and discussion, the truck turned around. The book ends with the large march of 12,000 to the State Capital, which included a sizeable SDS breakaway march, and then the occupation of Johnston Hall by the Attica Brigade, the last ‘action’ of the uprising. I hesitate to call it an insurrection, as Felien does, as that seems to be hyperbole. It was a ‘non-violent’ insurrection if you will, and certainly, like the RNC, the main sources of violence were the police and Guard.

Eventually the Tactical Squad and the bulldozers removed the barricades. However, anyone who was there saw a local police department and local political leadership which was over-matched for a time. And that is something you do not forget.

Various characters make an appearance in the book. Paula Giese, a professor at the U and a key activist, was constantly armed with facts to throw at the U administration. She played a leadership role at many key times. Malcolm Moos, the ‘liberal’ president of the University, who nevertheless allowed ROTC, military recruiters and secret military research on campus, and tried to pretend that he was against the war, but did not support ‘radical’ methods. Charles Stenvig, the right-wing Daley/Rizzo type mayor of Minneapolis, staked his fame, much like Fletcher, on his rough handling of protesters. However, his TAC squad finally got tired and had to retreat. Marv Davidov was involved in events, leading a march against Honeywell, manufacturer of weapons for Vietnam. The Clery and Laity Concerned also appear, mostly as advocates of abandoning the barricades. The YSA/Mobe, who Felien calls in typical Maoist terminology, “Trots,”, appear as the advocates of only one tactic – large peace marches to remote locations. SDS and folks like KK Washington are mostly praised, as are the VVAW and what Felien likes to call the “Richter Red Devils” – street kids who hung around the old Richter’s drugstore on the West Bank. He praises them for being at the heart of erecting and defending the barricades. Interlarded between the text are pictures from the Minneapolis papers, the Daily, old leaflets and photocopies of odd SDS stuff like “Moos Money” – which you could use to get a sip of Moos' own whiskey.

Felien also has a section on events that lead up to the agitation on campus, including left opposition to a U corporate agenda called “Toward 1985 and Beyond” proposed by the U administration. The plums of this plan? Increased tuition, liquidation of the Humanities department, cutting of staff, raising the bus fare – it was a forerunner to the land grant institution becoming a phony “Harvard of the Midwest.” This document would be familiar to anyone who goes to the U today.

This is a valuable and local history that could have been lost, except in our memories, and Felien is to be congratulated for finally publishing it. I only have one beef – Felien should learn how to spell the term Trotskyist. In a way, the national left was bifurcated by skills – the YSA/SWP knew how to have large peace marches, SDS/PL knew how to engage in more militant direct action, and organize unions, and groups like NAM had a more intimate, organizational approach that lead to things like the Constituent Assembly – the democratic organization that grew out of the student strike events. An actual revolutionary party would be able to carry out all these activities, and more. And that was, perhaps, one of the missing ingredients.

Participants in the events at the RNC will notice how polite and sometimes calm the Guard, administrators and even police could be in 1972. You might also notice that the numbers of protesters in 1972 were larger than the numbers at the RNC. Participants will also notice how the police and Guard in 1972 were nowhere near as well armed or numerous as they are now. 36 years and millions of dollars later, and our forces of repression are far … more … repressive. That is what the study of even local history teaches us.

--Red Frog, and I bought it at MayDay Books!
9/25/08

Monday, September 22, 2008

This Sunday!

Please join us to welcome a new book by local long-time activist Ed Felein:

TakeTheStreets - Photo Hosted at Buzznet

Monday, September 8, 2008

Warning, Warning, Mr. Robinson

As you may already know, our main Mayday Site was taken down right before the RNC due to a destructive virus discovered, or ostensibly discovered, by Google. We are preparing a new expanded site, using a new program, hosted by a new computer, and will try to get it cleared by Google.

We do not know if this was 'cyber-war' by the government, but the assumption is probably accurate. Anyway, the blog is still running, as you can see.

On another note, congratulations to Minneapolis, as the most literate city in the United States, based on various records by Jack Miller and the NEA. Congratulations to St. Paul, now number three most literate city. Seattle fell to number two. So we are also the most literate metropolitan area... And you wondered why a bookstore would try to survive in this two-horse town? The south had one city, Atlanta, on the list, at #8. The rest were on the coasts, or in the northern states.

RNC Again

... or rubber 'bullocks', bean bag electric chairs, Cossacks, motorcycle lice, bike copperheads, very large white tie-wraps for ankles and wrists, 3 foot wooden luncheons, Sheriff Thug Fetcher, snow-pows, the Department of Homeland Insecurity, the Very Secret Out of Service, 8 foot wire mesh protest and detention chicken cages, pulling the plug several times to protect and serve the ruling class, or really rage against the machine.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Summer Vacation ends with a ... Bang

After the longest week most of us have had in a long time, 'fall' is upon us. The summer 'vacation' is over, and book reviews will be starting again.

Let us know what you did at the end of your summer vacation - i.e. the week in hell that was the RNC. Mini-police state donuts? Tear gas on a stick? Patriot Act II. 3,500 thugs. Detention hell. Report this!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Georgia forum

Sara Flouders speaking

Sara Flounders, of the Troops Out Now Coalition, is in town to participate in antiwar protests during the RNC. She is also going to speak on the recent events at Georgia at Mayday Books. Open to the public!

08 09 03 08 Georgia - Photo Hosted at Buzznet

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Demonstrate against the RNC!

Join us in the Twin Cities

RNClarge - Photo Hosted at Buzznet

09 01 08 RNC 2up - Photo Hosted at Buzznet

RNClarge - Photo Hosted at Buzznet

PS to Red Frog. I work on a Mac. Let's chat!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Book Review: "People's History of the Vietnam War"

Book Review: “A Peoples’ History of the Vietnam War”, by Jonathan Neale, 2001

This book is part of a series of peoples’ histories, edited by, who else, Howard Zinn. These books take the view of ordinary people, as distinguished from the ‘great man’ histories, mostly typical of bourgeois historiography. Besides Zinn’s own groundbreaking volume on the United States, it also includes probably the best book every written on the U.S. Civil War, predictably titled “A People’s History of the Civil War” by Georgia professor David Williams. The latter includes the well known struggle in the North against the aims of the northern capitalist class. But its central narrative is the almost unknown majority mass struggle against the war and the planter aristocracy by white southern workers, sharecroppers and small farmers. A taste of this was seen in the film, “Cold Mountain.” This book puts to rest the myth of the South united under slavery, propagated by apologists for the Confederacy. A myth many northerners also buy into.

No such grand feat is accomplished by this volume by Neale, who is a writer and also supporter of the Schactmanite International Socialist Organization (ISO) at Amherst. However, it includes some valuable and oft-overlooked aspects to the Vietnam war, even to those familiar with the basic story. Neale has to compete with books like “Working Class War” by Christian G Appy. To do so, he attempts to talk about the Vietnamese side as well, applying a class analysis all around. Neale himself is a PHD graduate of Warwick University in England.

DOMINO EFFECT

Neale makes a convincing case that the domino effect, pooh-poohed by liberals, was actually an operative factor. The war against the Soviet Union and China, the ‘cold war” behind all these events, was a war waged to prop up world-wide U.S. hegemony. Neale himself thinks the cold war was a war by the U.S. against other ‘capitalist’ powers. This analysis is the long running weakness in the book. It makes the Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions out to be, yes, ‘capitalist’ revolutions, lead by the bourgeoisie! Those clever, progressive capitalists … ! In effect, he diminishes the actual global class war that was raging between classes.

Neale contends that the domino theory is real. Anti-communism had been the glue that welded U.S. employers and the government together against the labor movement here at home. They used anti-communism to successfully ‘declaw’ the movement of reds in the '50s. McCarthyism actually existed long before McCarthy, starting under Truman and J Edgar Hoover, and was mostly directed at the labor movement. 3,000 longshoreman lost their jobs due to it. Here in Minnesota, chubby Hubert Humphrey helped purge the "Democratic" Farmer Labor Party of reds and leftists. In addition, the military ‘draw’ in Korea was still fresh in the minds of the U.S. ruling class. The Cuban revolution had just turned to the left. The U.S. was afraid a success by the Vietnamese could spill over into Cambodia and Laos.

Neale brings up Exhibit D, much forgotten, the peoples’ movement in Indonesia, where a mass Communist movement contested for power. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and its labor and peasant allies were drowned in blood by Sukarno in 1965. Over half a million people were slaughtered by the government army and their right wing Muslim allies. The spine to do this was put into Sukarno by U.S. military support of the various South Vietnamese regimes. 450,000 U.S. troops were within a day’s flight sitting in Vietnam. And orders from the CIA, of course, as Indonesia was far more important to U.S. imperialism than Vietnam. Liberals shed no tears over this slaughter – they approved it. They never mention it.

And of course, Laos and Cambodia did fall. We must recall Che Guevara's call for "two, three, many Vietnams." The eventual military defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam is the cause for the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ that still exists – a seeming reluctance by the majority of the American population to die in a foreign war. It is still in effect, even through two Iraq wars. Yes, folks, it was quite a defeat. There was a domino effect.

TONNAGE

Anyone who reads about the war in Vietnam, the “American” war, knows that ordinary Vietnamese peasants and workers had to contend with the most aggressive military tactics and ordinance known to mankind. According to Neale, 1.5-2 million Vietnames peasants, Viet Cong and NVA died in Vietnam alone, though the Vietnamese own numbers are higher. Neale puts the total for all countries at 3 million. The numbers are staggering, of humans and animals dead, wounded, crippled, ecosystems destroyed, poisons unleashed, buildings razed, dikes broken, paddies flooded, bridges bombed, across three countries - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In Cambodia several hundred-thousand peasants died under bomb attacks approved by the U.S. and the Lon Nol government, nearly a tenth of the population. The Plain of Jars in Laos was made a wasteland. Schools, hospitals, churches, pagodas even leper colonies in North Vietnam were repeatedly bombed and strafed by John McCain and his compatriots. Neale cites eye-witnesses at one leper colony, which suffered 36 bombings. Anti-personnel bombs holding 180,000 darts a piece were dropped. The U.S. dropped 8 million tons of ordinance in all sectors – 3 times the weight of all bombs dropped by ALL sides in World War II. Yes, read that again. 3 times the weight of all bombs dropped by ALL sides in WW II.

And why is it that to defeat fascism in WW II or the U.S. in Vietnam, millions had to die? While to defeat the dreaded USSR, hardly anyone died in the counter-revolution lead by Boris Yeltsin? Think about it.

The point of all this was break the will of the population to resist. It didn’t work, but it wrecked havoc on the Vietnamese people. The book, “Sorrow of War”, by Bao Ninh, a north Vietnamese soldier, is the most poignant description of that misery, and one of the great books every written about war. You can buy it from crippled Vietnamese soldiers on the streets of Hanoi to this day.

CHINA

For all the blowhard reactionaries who still think we should have ‘escalated’ the war in Vietnam, there was one ace in the hole held by the Vietnamese resistance movements that is relatively unknown. To his credit, Neale brings is up. China had troops in north Vietnam, seeded in various locations, working some anti-aircraft guns, barracked in others. A large scale invasion, a nuclear attack, a mass parachute drop – any event like this could have precipitated the involvement of China, and if China had been attacked, the Russians could also have become involved. Both countries were supplying Vietnam with weapons and aid. This is why it never happened. So it was not just the ‘little’ Vietnamese people against the ‘big’ Americans, though that is most of the story. It was a global front against the United States.

RESISTANCE

Neale has chapters on the resistance at home against the war, and the resistance within the military. He cites the 1969 anti-war march of 500,000 as the biggest march in U.S. history, bigger than the anti-poverty march headed by Dr. King. This is familiar territory for most readers, so I will not repeat it. Neale’s chapters on the resistance in the military reminds us of how broad the military opposition was – to the point where the draft army would no longer fight – something the brass and the government knew in 1970-71. 93,000 mostly working-class soldiers deserted between 1968-1972. There were hundreds of anti-war newspapers on every military base in the world, the names of which Neale details. Navy ships had their own, like the USS Coral Sea and the USS Constellation. Even the Air Force, the aristocracy of the military, had anti-war activists. One fighter pilot and one B-52 bomber pilot refused to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong during the Christmas bombing campaign in 1972. The B-52 crews at Guam and U Tapao in Thailand had such bad ‘morale’ that many bombing flights were canceled.

These are the airmen we should celebrate, not John McCain. McCain was the son of a long line of brass, and still thinks he should inherit the U.S. military. He was born with a silver sword in his mouth. May he choke on it.

INTERNAL CLASS POLITICS

After the success of the war against the Americans, the Vietnamese still did not have peace. They intervened in Cambodia in 1978 to defend themselves from constant cross border raids by the Khymer Rouge, and defended themselves from the Chinese in 1979. Only in 1989 did peace come to the Vietnamese when they pulled out of Cambodia after the fall of the USSR, whose proxy they had become. They have now been at peace for almost 20 years, an unheard of luxury and a great source of happiness for the Vietnamese people.

Neale covers the red thread of the story of rice and land, which is the heart of Vietnamese relations in the country-side. There was a small working class in the cities, in which some Trotskyists were active. Trotksyists were also working on some of the rubber plantations in the south. The Trotskyists took part in the Saigon general strike of 1938 and participated in the Saigon revolt of August 21, 1945. However, the bulk of the population were landless or commune peasants. The French always supported local large landlords against the collective property of the villages, or the smaller landholders. The French extracted extortionate rice levies and tax levies, subsuming poor peasants into debt or sharecropping, or into wage labor, in order to pay the tax. Large landlords then got larger. This was the main reason the Communists and Viet Minh were able to gain solid support in the rural areas, because when they took power in an area, they threw out the landlords and distributed the land, while lowering taxes. The overwhelming growth of the Viet Cong in the South was due to this same policy.

In spite of this, Neale’s theory is that the Vietnamese Communist Party was dominated by intellectual ‘mandarin’ cadres closer to ‘progressive’ landlords than peasants. While they became revolutionaries of sorts (I guess), once taking power they treated the peasants much like the old landlords of yore, taxing them of their rice beyond endurance. As a result, the Vietnamese cooperatives during and after the war, while modeled after earlier Vietnamese rural forms, were impoverished by demands from the urban ‘state.’ Neale calls this ‘state capitalism.’ Later, land divisions in 1988 resulted in many old landlords with friends in high places regaining much of their land.

I find this argument unconvincing. I have seen the village Ho was from, and it is extremely modest, just outside Hue. I would not call these people ‘very’ mandarin! It is possible that the peasants could have been supplied with urban goods, education and health care, in exchange for their rice levies. I think it was a program of uber-industrialization and forced collectivization, based on a Stalinist model, that resulted in the impoverishment of the peasantry, and not the presence of an alleged ‘state capitalism.’ The fact the landlords were able to re-gain some land after the land dispersal in 1988 reflects a lack of democracy under the Vietnamese workers state – the bureaucracy has always had close ties with businessmen, as we have seen over and over again. Nevertheless, Neale’s history of the development of Vietnamese rural relations is extremely factual, and brings a relatively untold story to U.S. readers.

As a response, Neale reports that strike levels since the '90s, outside the official unions in Vietnam, run higher than in bourgeois democracies, including our own paradise of labor. A recent strike over rice in northern Vietnam against a Taiwanese clothing factory made world-wide headlines. Perhaps the storied patience and 'labor peace' promised to our lords of capital in the lowly 'third' world is ending. This shows the Vietnamese working class is mobilizing again. Their history would predict nothing less.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, 6/24/2008

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Review: Garbage Land

Book Review: “Garbage Land” By Elizabeth Royte, 2005 –

They don’t call it muckraking for nothing. The rebirth of muckraking has finally gotten around to the actual muck – garbage, that is, the dark side of our throw-away society. This book accompanies “Gone Tomorrow – The Hidden Life of Garbage” by Heather Rogers, also published in 2005. Both female, Royte and Rogers both live in Brooklyn, New York. So you know something odd is going on in Park Slope.

Garbage is our dirty little secret. No one wants to think about it much. Everyone wants to put it in a bag or some public bin, or flush or rinse it away, and ‘end of story.’ People don’t want to face garbage any more than meat eaters want to visit a slaughterhouse, or war supporters want to actually enlist, or people in love with nature want to bicycle to work or mow their lawns with push-mowers. Well, Royte did. She took her garbage apart, week by week, weighing it for nearly a year, listing what was in it each week … down to the twist ties, ignoring only the tissues. Then she tried to follow each thread of the bag down to its final resting place, and most everything going into the drain and toilet. Perhaps the fascination with garbage in Brooklyn is the result of it’s proximity to “Fresh Kills” landfill on Staten Island, the biggest landfill in the world at 2200 acres, now closed. (A ‘kille’ is Dutch for a riverbed or water channel…) Whatever the reason, we are fortunate someone did it so we don’t have to …

The main point of the book is to investigate how we can recycle or reuse what we throw out, given the limitations of the physical world. It is written in the first person, and we meet the various actors at the landfills, recycling facilities, sewage plants, wastewater treatment plants, incinerators, on the garbage trucks, and in the planning offices, all from a New York perspective. Royte is inspired to investigate garbage by a visit to the Gowanus canal, at the foot of Brooklyn, 1.3 miles of ‘water’ full of the detritus of modern ‘civilization,’ including guns and mob bodies, lined with fuel and cement factories, an old marine transfer station for garbage and an asphalt plant that used to recycle glass. New York resident throw out 4.5 pounds of waste a day, an increase of 1.8 pounds over 45 years. The national waste stream has tripled since 1960. Each American throws out 1.31 tons of waste a year – 30% is recycled/composted; 13% burnt, and 57% buried in a hole in the ground. And this is the average across municipalities, so a San Francisco and a Birmingham Alabama could be on different ends of the spectrum.

What Royte saved for later was that only 3% of all waste is generated by individuals – the rest is generated by industrial and corporate activity. So is there a point in recycling this tiny amount when the lords of garbage are the real targets? However, the pound of junk (or that nice computer) in your house is related to tons of waste back at the factory, as the consumer is the target of it all. Purchasing feeds production, so if you buy something, it directly relates backward to the large virgin waste pile, and forward to the eventual disposal of the used product. If individuals have recycled, or limited waste by not buying in the first place, they gain, among other things, a moral ability to ask massive producers and polluters to do it too. In this, the population ends up being ahead of the corporations, as usual.

Throw-away products were marketed from the 20s to the 60s as modern and clean, while it was implied that reusing things was dirty and lower-class. The 20th century saw the disappearance of rag men, bone collectors (from meat), the banning of horses in the cities, and civil limitations on various scavengers of glass, metal and paper. Instead, all went to be dumped in the ocean or in pits. The return of ‘can men’ is actually a sign that recycling is profitable again.

LANDFILLS

Royte points out the environmental racism inherent in much trash collection. Transfer stations are located in poor neighborhoods in New York, so noise and pollution follow in those neighborhoods. From the marine transfer stations, everything was barged by water to Staten Island. The old garbage now interned in Fresh Kills is hidden away under vast high mounds covered with brown grasses, surrounded by slowly developing marsh fauna, underlain with various liners, gases like methane and liquid wastes vented as they come out of the mounds, then treated or used as fuel. It is supposedly a model landfill. The problem is, plastic liners and covers break. Dry waste lasts almost forever, while wet waste still leaches for a long time. Fresh Kills is a bit of both, given it is in a former marsh. The EPA only requires a landfill to be monitored for 30 years, and Royte contends that landfills have more problems the older they get, which only makes sense. Fully wet landfills are called ‘bio-reactors’ and are being tested in California…though the problem is, of course, the toxic leachate and methane made up of nail polish, diapers, battery acid, cleaners, plastics etc. doesn’t stop emitting for years.

Royte has a nice story about how the mob was pushed out of the trash-hauling business in New York by Guiliani, because of their almost extortionate prices and low quality. In their place came the corporate mega-haulers – Waste Management, IESI and Allied/BFI. Those companies initially had lower rates, but now have topped the mob in price and in quality. I.E., the corporate mob.

Royte followed her ‘new’ garbage to a large new landfill in Pennsylvania. It was trucked all the way from New York City, at $257 a ton in 2002 disposal fees, to private contractors who run these landfills. They would not let Royte see their Pennsylvania landfill except from an approved area. When blocked at every turn, she hides, hops over a fence and then loses her nerve over being discovered, in attempting to climb the high hill to look at the active ‘face’ – where the garbage is being layered by massive graders.

COMPOSTING

Usually, one of the touchiest parts of garbage is the organics, and so Royte looks into what is to be done with food and other organic wastes. She starts collecting her coffee grounds, banana peels and eggshells in a can on the counter, then gives it to the gardeners downstairs. Park Slope itself got a 41% composting rate in a pilot project for composting at Fresh Kills, a project ended due to budget cuts. (What else?) Garden waste and kitchen waste combine to form compost, activated by worms or biological activators. Unfortunately, not only is mass meat eating unsustainable environmentally, it cannot be composted.

Municipal composting is gaining strength, going from over 651 communities in 1989 to 3,227 in 2002. Minneapolis is also considering it. Los Angeles mixes yard waste with wastewater sludge 'biosolids' to make “TOPGRO,” a fertilizer, so two kind of recycling are being done at one time. In one month Royte got rid of 26 pounds of waste into her composting system, thus freeing the landfill of that much weight, and reusing the nutrients. The EPA thinks 67% of household waste could be composted, but this seems a high number.

RECYCLING

Madison, WI was the first city to start a recycling program, collecting paper in 1967. Marblehead, MA added bottles and cans in 1973, inspired by Earth Day. New York started with paper recycling only in 1986, and still makes money on the program. Royte visited a paper recycling plant on Staten Island, processing 180,000 tons of corrugated liners out of the ‘urban forest.’ Recycling paper saves thousands of trees a day, saves oil and water, uses less electricity than ‘virgin’ paper processing, and keeps massive amounts of paper out of the landfills. However, paper cannot be eternally recycled, and starts to break down after several gor-ounds. Royte tried to get her book printed on recycled paper (like the Harry Potter series) but her publisher, Time-Warner, said ‘no.’ (!)

She next visits a metal recycling facility in Jersey City. Metal appliance recycling has included enough metal in one year to make 189 stadiums for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Recycling saves iron ore, coal and limestone. Recycling aluminum generates huge savings in bauxite ore, crude oil, coke, ash, pitch and lime, along with cutting energy use and pollution by 94%. These are incredible gains. At the center of this story is the “Prolerizer," used in one New York metal recyling plant. It is a massive 6,000 horsepower chopper with 32 giant steel-maganese blades that can cut up any amount of metal in seconds. And yet, most metal in the U.S. is not recycled.

HARZARDOUS WASTE

You know that eye-burning chemical you put in your drain to break c logs? Yes, that. And the can it came in? Royte tackles hazardous wastes like batteries, paint, electronics, etc. Some is incinerated, others are just put in the landfill (alkaline batteries still contain traces of mercury, but now are thought not to be hazardous…!) Coal fired plants burning mercury-containing waste (PC boards, batteries, thermostats, fluorescent lights, gauges etc.) contribute 2/3rds of the poisonous mercury in the atmosphere.

Royte finally found her well-hidden Brooklyn hazardous waste site, and discovers the batteries, fluorescents, paint and thermostats all get recycled by various private companies – sometimes. The rest is stuck in the landfill in black sacks. Right now, electronic waste is accumulating three times faster than any other kind. The criminal cell phone companies manufacture throw-away phones full of toxic metals. The computer industry is fully on-board with planned obsolescence. Only recently has Best Buy begun to take in electronic waste for recycling. Some computers get recycled domestically, and others get sent to third world countries so Indian children can go through mounds of computer monitors for parts. Some states ban e-waste from landfills. Europe makes the producers of the waste, the electronics companies, responsible for their waste product. Now Maine is joining Europe in passing laws to the same effect. CDs, videotapes, ink cartridges, cell phones – all can be recycled, but the economies of scale do not make this very ‘affordable’ in a capitalist economy.

PLASTIC – SATAN’S RESIN

I have one word for you, boy … “Plastics.” Recycled plastic levels are down in the last few years, from a high of 39.7% 12 years ago, to 19.2% in 2002. And the people that drink water in plastic bottles are worse recyclers than pop drinkers. If the recycling rate had continued, 6.2 million barrels of crude could have been saved, and a million tons of greenhouse gases avoided. But no. Most people drink this stuff ‘on the go’ so they also throw away the stuff ‘on the go.’ 40 million plastic bottles get thrown away per day.

Get a metal bottle and fill it with tap water. Period.

Royte visits a plastic recycler that turns yogurt cups into seawalls and lumber, or ships it overseas to be made into clothing. Uniformly, recycling plants pay poorly, have a non-white, low-wage workforce, and are low tech, grimy operations. New York has now halted plastic recycling. Grocery stores oppose bottle bills, as do the whole can, container and bottle industries. Coke and Pepsi claim they are going to use recycled plastic in their bottles and they haven’t done it yet. Much content ends up in China or other low-wage / low environmental regulation countries. There are two main problems with plastics – they are of such variable content as to make recycling difficult, and they never go away. Never. The chemical composition alone in incinerators or landfills provides a toxic discharge for many years. 500 square miles of the north Pacific contain a floating sea of plastic waste, eaten by fish and birds. In 2002 a researcher in this ‘dead zone’ reported finding 10 pounds of plastic for every 1 pound of zooplankton.

The real answer to plastic is that it will, A, become so expensive as to disappear, due to peak oil; B, people will stop buying things made out of it; C, it will be realized that it is non-sustainable and toxic, so that it will be banned completely, or all 3. It will only be used for limited, very specific and high tech uses. That is the future of plastics.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST, SHIT AND OTHER WET THINGS

The last thing that Royte talks about is human and animal waste. Grease recyclers wouldn’t talk to her, so she had to investigate something else. Royte mediates on this issue while looking at a full disposable diaper left at her home by visitors. You’ve been there. Into the garbage, along with the dozens of doggie poo bags and kitty litter, and on to the landfill it goes! Royte follows her waste pipes downhill to the wastewater treatment plant, in Owl’s Head, on the southern tip of Brooklyn. In heavy rains, the waste runs right into the harbor. Small towns and municipalities put waste directly into the streams and rivers, as many still do in Minnesota, according to a recent Star-Tribune series. New York itself pumped sludge directly into the ocean until 1985, when the oyster beds died and the fish got sick. Only in 1992 did the last load of New York sludge go into the ocean. Some larger municipalities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Houston remake it into fertilizer that is sold to farmers or ranchers. In New York, “biosolids” like this are shipped to a plant in the South Bronx. However, thier saftety as actual fertilizer is questionable, as application has to be 'very careful.' Individuals have started to use low water, grey water or no water toilets. Some people are composting human manure outside their homes.

ZERO WASTE

The goal of most environmental activists is zero waste, and while this seems unfeasible, it is amazing how much waste could be reduced if it was tackled on a society-wide basis. Germany, for instance, assumes the recyling of everything - exactly the opposite to the U.S.. Waste can be prevented in the first place by production and packaging controls. Of course, that would mean capitalism would probably have to end in its present form, or ANY form, as this would require a more planned economy. In addition, it would require a social effort not seen since World War II, something that our rulers are loathe to see. A divided and difused population is what they prefer. That is the lurking danger for the capitalist class behind the idea of the natural limits of the world. The proletariat seems to have had a slow half-century in the U.S., but nature itself is making it’s own statement, working class or no working class.

---and I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, June 19, 2008

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Book Review: In Praise of Barbarians"

Book Review: “In Praise of Barbarians” by Mike Davis, 2007

The recent past has seen a profusion of left-wing books, films and documentaries. This blog in part is a tribute to this wave of intellectual fervor, which is greater than anything seen since the late 60s and early 70s. Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, the elder warhorse intellectuals of the left, have been joined by a raft of hard-core atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, environmental activists like Vandana Shiva and James H Kunstler and social and economic critics… the latter including Kevin Phillips, Doug Henwood, Greg Palast, Thomas Frank, Susan Faludi, William Grieder, Michael Parenti, Eric Schlosser, John Perkins and Mike Davis.

Only one of these people, besides Doug Henwood and perhaps Mr. Parenti, is still a Marxist revolutionary of sorts… Mike Davis, who writes in New Left Review and Socialist Review, along with the Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, Radical History, and various mainstream newspapers. Davis, a historian based in Los Angeles, influenced by the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, has a wide range of interests, and they are on display in his new book, “In Praise of Barbarians.” His last book, the celebrated “Planet of Slums,” focused on the growth of sprawling, poverty-stricken mega-cities like Jakarta, Mumbai and Kinshasa, and how they are changing the dynamics of capitalism and class struggle in the third-world.

This books is a series of essays from 2001-2007, published in various places, all dealing with episodes of rebellion against the new Romans. Essays on the responsibility for dissent after 9/11, the collapse of the Democratic Party during the 2000 and 2004 elections, and careful analysis of the divisions within the Democratic Party after the 2006 election are written from a traditionally left-wing viewpoint.

MORE ON WAR

Davis’ next section is where the analysis gets interesting. There is a standout story on the successful left-wing movement in Greenland against U.S. military bases and the subsequent degradation of Greenland’s environment and the Inuit people. It is followed by a comparison of the so-called ‘cartoonish’ violence in a Cormac McCarthy book “Blood Meridian” which actually pales in comparison to the old westerners it was based on, and the modern ‘westerners’ in Vietnam. McCarthy, of course, also wrote “No Country for Old Men.” The U.S. Army’s 101st Tiger Force, emulating McCarthy’s ‘heroes’, started scalping Viet Cong right off the bat in Vietnam in 1967, rampaging through the central highlands killing everyone in sight. This story was covered by the Toledo Blade in 2002 and roundly ignored by what passes for the press in the U.S. The subsequent story of the bridge at No Gun Ri in South Korea, where U.S. troops were ordered to massacre Korean civilians in July 1950, was another story mostly ignored by the U.S. press, and also covered by Davis.

Essays on Iraq chronicle the history of the early British occupation of the delta, and the bloodthirsty tactics of Winston Churchill, which even T.E. Lawrence was motivated to protest. Churchill was actually the first to use poison gas there.

An odd essay on new battlefield theories the Pentagon is using in Iraq, called “revolution in military affairs / network centric warfare” (“RMA/NCW”) show how the military thinks technology will allow it complete domination of any ‘battlespace.’ Proponents think that the ‘fog of war’ can be overcome, and the U.S. will achieve “total battlespace knowledge.” Just the language itself is chilling, and the corporate-speak obvious, like CEOs with stars. Both Rumsfield and Cheney are big fans of this ‘modernistic’ approach. A similar story on RAND Corporation tactics developed to fight in the sprawling and asymmetric locales of Sadr City and Faluja blends with Davis’ own study of the world’s mega-cities, which the military says are the new battlegrounds, and their weakest link. Davis follows it with a story on the outcast 1.5 billion members of the ‘proletariat’ of the mega-cities – not yet workers, and no longer peasants. According to Davis, this vast army of peddlers and occasional laborers, brought about by the IMF/corporate destruction of family agriculture, is a direct threat to imperialism’s rule. Their numbers will almost double by 2030 unless local agriculture makes a comeback.

CALIFORNIA CULTURAL STUDIES

Davis doesn’t stop at the standard themes of left-wing analysis. He, like Gramsci, has an appreciation for the politics within cultural issues. He has a hilarious essays on driving the freeways in southern California in a V-8 SUV; the intersection of freeway rage and right-wing politics around the recall of Gray Davis; Swartzenegger’s election, and the recent California grocery workers strike. Included are a critical analysis of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the California Penal system, the Cali housing bubble (written in 2005), the Great Wall of the United States being erected along our southern border, along with the Minutemen who patrol it; the colonization of Baja California by gringo corporations, and Schwatzenegger’s conversion to moderation. Later stories cover Scorcese’s ignoring of the massive German left in New York, in order only to focus on the conservative nativist and Irish gang fighting of “Gangs of New York.” To counter the hullabaloo over “the Greatest Generation” Davis has a short history of Private “Ivan” – the Russian soldier invisible to Americans, who really destroyed the Nazi armies.

ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHES

Unlike some mechanical Marxists, who think global warming or peak oil are schemes cooked up by the capitalists (!!), Davis, like Marx, understands the intersection of environmental degradation and capitalist accumulation. He has an excellent chapter on the heat wave in Europe and Chicago that killed tens of thousands in 2003, brought on by global climate change, and the inadequate response of the ‘appointed’ governments. He follows that with a story on Kerry and the Democratic Party’s total misreading of peak oil in 2004. He also brings in a chapter from his own 2005 book on lurking pandemics: “Monster at the Door – The Global Threat of Avian Flu” which centers on the central roles of agribusiness and the fast-food industries in enabling this flu, which could kill millions.

Hurricane Katrina and the (planned) destruction of black New Orleans is the subject of a group of biting essays that link Bush, FEMA, black Democrat Mayor Ray Nagin (who voted for Bush n 2000), and the DLC/John Kerry policy of marginalizing black Americans in the Democratic Party. A great companion to Spike Lee’s 4 part documentary on New Orleans and Katrina, “When the Levees Broke,” these illustrate the results of a decades-long policy of letting the ‘war on poverty’ quietly end, and black people quietly disappear.

HISTORY

What follows in one of the most interesting pieces, an interview with Davis about various generations of ‘terrorists’ on the left, an article reprinted from Radical History. Davis is extremely objective as to the nature of left 'terrorism' - seeing it many times as a response to government terrorism, and not always counter-productive. He then compares the massive 1934 textile workers strike in the South with the present Democratic Party policy of encouraging NAFTA and ignoring labor rights, especially abroad. Lastly, a fascinating history of the Sunset Strip police riots when young people stood up against the Los Angeles police in ’66-’67 for the right to visit night clubs hosting rock music and walking the streets of the Strip. By the way, with some help from the budding rocks stars of the time, they won.

Davis follows with a coda explaining that most subjects of the Roman Empire were happy when the so-called Barbarians over-turned Roman rule, as their taxes went down, the landlords were removed, and they were able to practice their religions and culture without heavy-handed oppression. At some point, as he calls it, the “Rome on the Potomac” will one day suffer the same fate.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 6/4/08

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Book Review: Blue Covenant

Book Review:
“Blue Covenant, the Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water” By Maude Barlow, 2007.

This book is a handbook for water activists – ‘water warriors’ Barlow calls them. A sequel to Barlow’s 2002 “Blue Gold,” it is the most up-to-date look at the ‘players’ in the war for water. Barlow is a head of the “Council of Canadians”, Canada’s largest public advocacy organization, and is particularly sensitive to the issue because of the role water plays in Canada.

Lack of water, like peak oil and climate change, threaten the very foundation of 'some' humans existence on this planet. Water is intimately connected to climate. And water is intimately connected to capitalism, which has selected water as perhaps an even more important product than oil. Capitalism, as this book shows, stalks humanity like the black death, as it is one of the main reasons for lack of clean water in country after country.

Let Ms. Barlow count the ways. The main organizations of the capitalist world – the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, the World Water Council and parts of the U.N., the main agricultural and water corporations, and most First World governments – all believe in privatization of water. They want to put a price on the most essential element of daily life. And if you cannot pay, you cannot … ‘play.’ Every day more children die of drinking dirty water than any disease in the world, including AIDS.

POLLUTION

By 2025, according to Barlow, 2/3rds of the world will be ‘water stressed.’ Climate change is accelerating drought. This is affecting, not just regions far away, but the southern half of the United States and most of Mexico. She asserts 36 U.S. states will have water shortages in the next 5 years. The Colorado and Rio Grande, Nile, Yellow, Indus and the Jordan rivers no longer reach the sea. Inequality is growing, as the average North American uses 600 litres of water a day, while the average African uses 6 litres. Between pollution of surface waters and over-mining of ground-water, there will be little left for everyone. The Dead Sea, the Ural Sea and Lake Chad are all but gone. The fabled Ganges in India is an open sewer. 75% of inland Russia’s water is polluted. Only 10 percent of Mexico City’s water waste is treated. 40% of U.S. rivers are not fit to swim or eat fish out of, even after the Clean Water Act. A tenth of the world’s crops are irrigated by … sewage water.

OVER-USEAGE

Irrigation of deserts and desert cities, over-usage of water for oil substitutes like ethanol and tar sands, over-mining of ground water by agribusiness, bottled water – all are leading to shortages. Non-renewable aquifers are being drained in an unregulated way in country after country, including the Ogallala here in the U.S. Due to lack of water, major sandstorms are now affecting parts of China. Glaciers are disappearing due to climate change, and glaciers feed many rivers. Ecuador, Peru & Bolivia all depend on glacier melt as their only source of fresh water. Large scale irrigation, a key component of the “green” revolution, loses up to 50% of water due to seepage or evaporation.

Barlow believes that certain products are really a way to ‘export’ water. Barlow calls this ‘virtual water.’ Vietnam is sucking water out of their country to export coffee beans. Flowers in Africa are sent to England, drying up Lake Navisha in Kenya. While Brazil’s sugar cane bio-fuel has far more energy than U.S. corn ethanol, it uses massive amounts of water to produce as well, and rivers in northern Brazil are drying up. The export model of World Bank capitalism actually results in a water transfer to … the wealthier countries.

Deforestation and urbanization result in interrupting the hydrologic cycle, as less moisture is produced into the atmosphere. Desertification is the most obvious example of what is happening, and this directly contributes to further drought. Rising salt seas are also starting to seep into freshwater marshes and wetlands, like the Everglades. All of these effects could lead to a billion climate change refugees. By 2050, 5 times as much land could be under extreme drought as exists today. Barlow insists that ‘high tech’ solutions favored by international finance, like big dams, desalination plants and water diversions, make the problem worse. Desalinization is very expensive (the Saudis have the most plants in the world, as you would expect…) and energy-intensive, i.e. not sustainable. Desalinization plants result in massive ocean pollution as a black brine is injected back into the ocean – 20 billion litres a day presently. And the desalinization plants only filter out the salt – not other pollutants in the ocean water.

CORPORATIONS AND THEIR DISCONTENTS

Barlow goes on to address how the First World capitalist concerns like Coke, Pepsi, Nestle and Suez only contribute to the problem, as their main interest is ‘profit’, not clean water or available water for everyone. Northern water aide to other countries is really designed to benefit the leading Western banks and corporations more than the people they are intended to ‘help,’ in spite of the rhetoric. This also agrees with the experience of John Perkins. She details the history of the development of water cartels, not surprisingly initiated by Margaret Thatcher and neo-liberal, free-market ideologues, who first privatized Britain’s water supply in the 80s.

Barlow then illustrates the international web of mostly people’s organizations fighting, and sometimes winning against the water cartels. The famous struggle in Cochabamba, Boliva, also mentioned by Perkins, is an example of struggles in Latin America that have helped to turn the tide against U.S. neo-liberal economics across the continent. This war is being waged on every continent. It is a war that will come home to us here in the U.S. very soon.

There are more acronyms in this book than a dictionary. Every single corporate water front and profit-making venture, every governmental and quasi-governmental agency interested in water, national and international, and every people’s organization dedicated to stopping the privatization of water floats in the alphabet soup inside. If you can fight through the initials, like unknown characters in a long novel, you will be able to make sense of the narrative. And in the process, it delivers a roadmap to the players in this play.

And I bought it at May Day books, on recommendation of Craig!
Red Frog, 5/27/2008

Saturday, May 3, 2008

"Free trade" with Guatemala

Good piece in Dissident Voice on what's happening in Guatemala. The Guatemalan president was in town (D.C.) a couple of days back to meet his imperial master. There was the obligatory photo-op, where GWB explained to the great unwashed how Guatemala was making strides in "development" (as I seem to recall) and how "free trade" would benefit everyone. Anyway, here's an excerpt from the DV piece:

Less than 24 hours after President Bush met with Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom at the White House on Monday, a worker from a union that filed a trade complaint with Washington against the Guatemalan government was murdered.

Carlos Enrique Cruz Hernández, a banana worker, was assassinated while working at a farm owned by a subsidiary of Del Monte. Cruz Hernández’s Union of Izabal Banana Workers (SITRABI), was one of six Guatemalan unions who, along with the AFL-CIO, filed a complaint allowed through labor provisions of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) on April 23, charging that the Guatemalan government was not upholding its labor laws and was failing to investigate and prosecute crimes against union members–which include rape and murder. The complaint states that violence against trade unionists has increased over the past two years (since CAFTA was ratified) and that the Guatemalan government may be responsible for some of the violence. The violence from this year alone includes 8 murders, 1 attempted murder, 2 drive-by shootings, and the kidnapping and gang rape of a top union official’s daughter who was targeted because of her father’s union work.

The ongoing violence against workers in Guatemala makes it clear that talk of free trade improving human rights in developing countries is lost in translation. Free trade has done nothing but exacerbate poverty and inequality, while rewarding governments for sustaining repressive conditions that allow corporations to exploit vulnerable, and often powerless workers. No country in the world exemplifies this hostility towards workers’ rights more than Colombia, a country that the Bush Administration is currently trying to reward by pressuring congress to pass a free trade agreement.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Riots and protests in Europe

There were riots and protests throughout Europe yesterday. Rather than duplicate the post in my personal blog, I'll simply refer interested readers to the post.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

NLR essay on subprime and financialisation

There's a new essay by Robin Blackburn on subprime and financialisation which is in the current edition of New Left Review, which can be read online here. He's right to point the finger at the complicity of quants and dodgy and obscure quantitative techniques which have turned out to be nothing more than sleight-of-hand.

Monday, April 28, 2008

More on hunger

Related to my previous post, I've just found a couple of articles in the same vein. In the first one, Mike Whitney, at Dissident Voice, quotes Chavez:

“It is a massacre of the world’s poor. The problem is not the production of food. It is the economic, social and political model of the world. The capitalist model is in crisis.”

And the second, by Otto Spengler (mentioned by Whitney) in Asia Times:

The global food crisis is a monetary phenomenon, an unintended consequence of America's attempt to inflate its way out of a market failure. There are long-term reasons for food prices to rise, but the unprecedented spike in grain prices during the past year stems from the weakness of the American dollar. Washington's economic misery now threatens to become a geopolitical catastrophe.

Because such a small proportion of the global rice supply trades, the monetary shock from the weak dollar was sufficient to more than double its price.

(I recommend the article be grokked in fullness). In essence, those buying in dollar-tied currencies have seen their purchasing power wither. Those not tied to such currencies have also seen their purchasing power decline as cash-rich countries use their dollars the only way they can: buying up commodities. For sure, the surge in prices of commodities (food, precious metals, real estate) over the last few years can certainly be ascribed to a world awash with liquidity, in large part US dollars. In the case of food, there are other complicating factors Spengler doesn't consider (poor harvests, biofuels, and so on). But even the use of biofuels can be ascribed at least to some extent to the weakening of the dollar and the concomitant surge in crude oil prices. In a nutshell high commodity prices in general (including food staples) and the impact of biofuel on food prices can both be ascribed to US monetary and economic policies of the last several years. It strengthens my argument that the food crisis is an engineered one (albeit inadvertently). But the poor are powerless.

World hunger

Interesting piece in today's FT:

QUOTE "The correct response is to give priority to dealing with hunger, with access to foodstuffs and to food production in poorer countries" Celso Amorim, Brazil's foreign minister, told the FT last week. "And to give priority to tackling the root of the problem: the enormous subsidies in rich countries that undermine production in developing nations. World hunger is not a result of a lack of supply, but principally of the low income levels in poor countries."UNQUOTE

The last sentence deserves a bit of elaboration. Notwithstanding the lies of Western "leaders," hunger in the Third World isn't principally caused by uncontrollable circumstances such as droughts and overpopulation. Droughts and overpopulation are problems to be sure, but not the primary culprits. The primary culprit is the superimposition of an artificial system of resource extraction from the Third World, using arcane tools of banking, finance, and international law, and backed by military coercion, overthrow of legitimate governments, and targeted assassinations if the earlier measures fail (aka neocolonialism). To give a simple example, poor countries are frequently having to devote their land to the growth of export-oriented cash crops to service the debts of Western loan sharks -- and these loans are meant to be unpayable. Similar examples are rife. In like vein, the use of corn for fuel is bringing about higher food prices all over the globe. The point is that world hunger and malnutrition -- both in poor countries and the affluent North -- is an engineered phenomenon.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Kevin Phillips' new book

I just got hold of Phillips' "Bad Money," which came out about a week ago. I've posted a couple of comments on my initial impressions of the book in a post at my blog; rather than doing a cut-and-paste, my blog post can be found here.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The mechanics of subprime

For a quick and accurate explanation of the mechanics of subprime, there's a powerpoint presentation, put together by Michael Perelman, available at his blog here.

Another perspective on the financial crisis

Most of the readers of this blog are doubtless aware that a tectonic shift in global economic relations has been taking place, with the inexorable rise of Asian economies and a resurgent Russian economy coupled with the anemic and problematic performance of the US economy. And for those of us who know our history, we know that major changes in relationships are usually precipated by some sort of crisis or major event. Thus the growing weakness of Britain vis-a-vis Germany and the USA needed WW1 to throw it into bold relief. It might be argued, I suppose, that the present financial crisis is also an indicator and precipitator of tectonic shifts. I found a good article at rense.com this morning, written from a realpolitik perspective, which in large part mirrors my own outlook:

But there is more to the story. The sub-prime crisis grew in the context of real and portentous developments across global trade, financial and economic systems. The Fed, Treasury and Wall Street, distracted by their own crisis, probably have had little time to focus on the tectonic plate shifts in the global system that probably mean they cannot go home again. The epicenters of international trade and finance simply are shifting. In essence, a good part of the wealth that might be needed to finance a recovery is in the wrong places or pockets, mostly in Asia, and when the dust settles, the global configuration will be different.

Whatever the approaches, the system is unlikely ever to be the same again, because the facts underlying global developments are profound. For starters, the solutions do not lie merely with changes in liquidity. They lie with recognition and adjustments around real changes in global economic structures including the scale and distribution of productivity and wealth. The sub-prime crisis simply adds to the adjustments already made necessary by those global changes.

However, as other economies have grown, diversified and prospered the dollar has faced rising competition from the Japanese Yen, then the Euro and, most recently, from the Chinese

Renmembi or Yuan and the Brazilian Real. These new challenges reflect both the growing
global strength of other economies and accumulating flaws in the strength of the American economy, notably continuing Federal deficits, rising international debt and growing import dependence
. Those developments weakened the Dollar by exposing it to the competition of other currencies, reduced its traditional role as a stabilizing international trade benchmark, and sent its value plunging as resource prices rose in response to increasing global demand for oil and
industrial materials.

To the degree that the United States is able to reduce its debt, curb its appetites for imported goods, adjust its affluent lifestyles, extricate itself from absurd levels of military expenditure, and restrain inflation, in short, put its economic house in order, declines in the value of the Dollar can be mitigated. However, the declining role of the Dollar in the world economy appears persistent.

In terms of GDP stated at purchasing power parity, the United States is now not only behind the European Union, it is being rapidly overtaken by Asian economies. World Bank estimates show that the Asian combination of China, Japan and India exceeds the United States and is breathing down the neck of the European Community for global first place. With the numbers for smaller Asian economies such as Malaysia, Asia is already globally in the lead.

The containment strategy that ultimately dominated the US Cold War posture actually provided an umbrella for potentially pre- emptive military moves that positioned the US virtually everywhere any economic resource of importance could be had.

When the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) surfaced in the early Bill Clinton presidency with plans to invade Iraq and with a global military power agenda, the altruistic side of American foreign policy had pretty well atrophied. The game had become power maintenance by military dominance. The PNAC designers appeared to have no clear-cut economic agenda, but their military scheme, if it succeeded, would have provided more than adequate cover for a
self-centered and pre-emptive resource acquisition strategy. As perceived by other advanced and advancing nations, this scheme drove 21^st century global resource acquisition strategies toward a nineteenth century capitalist model. One only has to look at Darfur, the Congo, Zimbabwe, and much of Central Asia as well as the Middle East to see how neo-colonial present day resource acquisition has become.


In the end, the sub-prime mess is likely to accelerate the transition of the US economy to a new position in the global system. Unless several major world economies-Japan, European Union, China, India, Brazil, and others-suddenly contract instead of continuing to grow at faster than US rates, the US weight in the global system will continue to decline; the Dollar will continue to play a reduced role in the global trade and payments system.

A military power strategy won't cut it. We are already going deeply into debt to sustain the present military posture. Other countries are not enamored of a US trying to run the world at the real or implied point of a gun. The system now needs truly global leadership. The United
States can lead in that direction, helping to create and strengthen the institutions that will provide global leadership in the common interest.
It is not leading now; it is forcing or trying to force global conformity to a self-centered US model, and that strategy eventually will fail. Such failures as the sub-prime fiasco only hasten the time when the present US model must be
abandoned
.


I apologise profusely for such copious pasting (even though I've tried to be selective) and insist that this is not my wont but seldom do I come across such careful and perceptive analysis. The fortunes of the US will continue to decline and in a sense the present crisis is a harbinger of more bad news to come over the next few years. It will be interesting to see how US policy makers try to use the one undoubted edge they still have -- US military superiority -- to bully or cajole other nations into complying with US demands.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The present crisis of finance capitalism

The paucity of theoretical (left-wing) analysis concerning the present financial crisis has been bothering me for the last several months. In recent days, however, theorists have begun to examine the context in which this crisis has occurred and its various ramfications.

First of all, there's John Bellamy Foster's essay in the April 2008 edition of Monthly Review, which can also be read online here. I'd suggest that one first read a piece he wrote for Monthly Review a year earlier, in April 2007, to flesh out the theoretical picture, which can be found here. As I understand Foster, the gist of what he's saying appears to be that the shift from an earlier industrial capitalism to today's finance capitalism was prompted by stagnating profit and the concomitant lack of profitable outlets for investment. But a corollary of this move has been a national economy (and increasingly, a global one) that is susceptible to booms and busts (in contrast to the relatively mild cycles of forty and fifty years ago), to speculative fevers and savage "corrections" of the sort not seen in an earlier post-WW2 age. And that what we have today is the inevitable collapse of a financial house of cards, which has been built on -- and succumbed from -- inherent contradictions such as insufficient purchasing power on the part of ordinary people, the explosion of credit, and the frantic and feverish search for super-profits. I hasten to add that I'm not sure to what extent I'm paraphrasing Foster and to what extent I'm depicting my own weltanshauung.

What troubles me now is how little theory informs current political discourse. The ideas put forward so far appear to be to lower interest rates, to provide some relief to mortgage holders, to "stimulate" the economy, to (half-heartedly) attempt some mild regulation of the markets -- all patch-and-mend. What's really needed is an ideological alternative: one that provides a theoretically different perspective from the neoliberal dogma of the last three decades. One that proposes that there may be an alternative to (ostensibly) free markets and ever-widening disparities in wealth and income; one that situates the present crisis as systemic and reveals the ideological bankruptcy of neoliberalism. One cannot, of course, expect the paid apes of the Democratic Party to initiate any such discourse; as I maintain, if the Republicans are killers, the Democrats are whores. So any such discourse will have to come from elsewhere, from some fringe or periphery. Yesterday evening I serendipitously stumbled across a couple of analyses which resonated with me; they can be found here and here. I'd just like to mention a couple of points that I found particularly noteworthy about Chazelle's essay.

First of all, he contends that any real ideology has to be disbelievable just as any real scientific theory has to be falsifiable: this resonates with me because I'm trained as a scientist. Thus saying that the sun will arise in the east doesn't constitute a theory; predicting the existence of Uranus or the existence of radio waves does. And if an ideology is to be disbelievable, it needs to be making concrete proposals that are based on tough choices. Any ideology that doesn't 1) indicate that there are alternatives and 2) suggest which of these alternatives should be chosen (i.e., tough decisions) and why, is no ideology. This is precisely why the Democratic Party is talking through its backside most of the time: it's not proposing a rival ideological framework. It merely puts a smiley-face on harsh realities and "feels your pain." And Democratic politicians assiduously avoid portraying any alternatives to the current status quo. But I digess. Both of the analyses are well worth reading and should provide food for thought.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Theatre Review - "Puntila and His Hired Man, Matti"

Bertold Brecht’s “Puntila and His Hired Man, Matti,” Frank Theatre, City of Minneapolis Garage.

The Frank Theatre is probably one of the most political theatre companies in this town, along with Penumbra, Mixed Blood and Intermedia Arts. Frank specializes in left-wing content, and moves its ensemble cast to unique locations, acting in a different venue for every show. I consider it the best political theatre in town. This time the production, which has now ended, was in a garage along Hiawatha Avenue used by the City of Minneapolis. Frank built comfortable risers to sit in, painted parts of the walls, railings, and various objects to look like birch trees, and generally used the space well.

The play, a typical comic cabaret, is set in Finland, where Bertold Brecht lived in exile for a time. It was written in collaboration with Finnish-Estonian playwright Hella Wuolijoki, but then Brecht renamed it and published it under his own name entirely. It tells the story of a landowner, Puntila with multiple personalities, who is interested in marrying-off his daughter, Eva, to a diplomat. The play is based on the transitions between a drunken, gregarious and generous life-of-the-party Puntila to a sober and vicious milk landlord Puntila, and back again. Matti, his trusty chauffeur, has to deal with the transitions, never forgetting that the drunk will turn back into a landlord with a hangover. Matti is almost the sole voice of logic and reason in the play. The actor, with a beard, goatee and driver’s hat that made him look vaguely like V.I. Lenin, at one point asks, “What is to be done?”

Indeed. What is to be done with the bourgeoisie?

While drunk, Puntila and Matti engage in banter, and Puntila discovers that Matti is a ‘real human being.’ Puntila is also acting like a ‘real human being’ when drinking, though a high-handed and arbitrary one even then. When drunk, Puntila loves Finland’s natural beauty – its birch forests, 70,000 lakes and mountains – and even chastises Matti for thinking he would ruin a forest to make money. (Marx himself equated the destruction of nature with the exploitation of the working class. It seems that Brecht is echoing this theme here.) Puntila, played by the actor Grant Richey, is a non-stop fun show when drinking. Over one randy past-midnight jaunt to a small village, he somehow manages to get engaged to four different village women, inviting them all to come to his estate on the same day for the culmination of their ‘engagement.’

The engagement day actually centers on the engagement of his daughter Eva to the “attache,” a gay young man in the foreign-service who owes Puntila a lot of money. Puntila, for somewhat obscure reasons, is encouraging the romance in order to gain favor with people in the government. Chain-smoking Eva is a pampered young woman schooled in Switzerland, who is trying to rationalize her engagement to a homosexual, but is having some doubts. Matti and she eventually hatch a plan to break the engagement by pretending to have a romantic tryst in the sauna. Minnesota readers will appreciate the sauna scenes, which incidentally feature no nudity. Now, at least, we know what goes on in such places..

The big day arrives. Early in the morning, Puntila’s four prospective brides arrive, each with a ‘ring’ on their finger made out of curtain rod loops that Puntila had given them, and the requisite ‘drink’ of aquavit. In a sober rage, Puntila orders the foolish women home, and they trudge the many miles back to their village while telling stories about the cruelty of the landlords and businessmen of Finland. One story involves the reds jailed after the working class rising there in 1918. Finland, after 600 years of Swedish rule, was from 1908 until 1917 under the control of the Czar. In 1918 the USSR gave Finland independence, something Kerensky had not been willing to do. During the white terror in 1918 during and after the Finnish civil war, won by the Whites under Mannerheim, between 8,400 and 14,600 red guards were executed out of hand. Anyone missed by the terror was blacklisted from work, kicked out of school or otherwise brutalized. This is the historic background for the seemingly innocuous joking atmosphere of the play itself.

The big day continues as the now drunk Puntila examines his prospective son-in-law, who misses the point of an obvious joke. Puntila realizes the attaché is a waste of a forest and an idiot, not to mention a bad match for his daughter. (He would have had to sell a forest as, I think, a dowry.) Puntila chases the attaché off the property, along with his senior sponsor, another government minister.

Here starts the central scene of the play. The remaining parties gather along a long table reminiscent of the last supper, with the Rabelasian Puntila in the Christ position. He suggests to his daughter that she should really marry Matti. A priest is appalled. Eva, cigarette-in-hand and tipsy, however agrees. Matti then attempts the ‘education’ of Eva, showing her how she would live as the wife of a chauffeur. Her hands would be reddened by work. They would eat herring 5-7 times a week – the main staple. There would be no money for anything. Cigarettes would be too expensive. He’d be woken at night and have to go to work, no matter what. There would be little romance for Eva, as the exhausted chauffeur would just need his boots removed and herring on the table. Eva reluctantly agrees that perhaps that type of life would not be so enjoyable. And so Brecht undermines one of the key myths of bourgeois society – that there are no barriers between classes, and that ‘love’ conquers all.

The next morning the hung-over and sober Puntila returns, fires a worker that might have had ‘red’ sympathies (it is unclear the offense) and then pledges to destroy all the booze in the house. Booze, after all, is the liquor of democracy, it seems. The servants bring out bottle after bottle of aqua-vit to be broken, and Puntila … starts drinking again. He creates a hysterical and dangerous scene upon a pile of tables and chairs over his love of the Finish landscape. The traditional bourgeois ending of the play, of course, would have been for Puntila to find his inner 'human,' and then Matti could freely mary Eva - perhaps getting a sawmill in the bargain, and everyone living happily ever after. Instead Matti, now thoroughly sickened, leaves the estate the next morning, never to return.

The play is full of singing, as Brecht plays tend to be, and ends with a socialist hymn to the time when there will be no masters and slaves, only men. The alternation of the semi-sympathetic ‘drunk’ Puntilla with the sober/cruel Puntilla shows that bourgeois society has two faces – and that even if one is in force, the other is not far away. A dry drunk is the most dangerous of men!