Sunday, February 24, 2008

Book Review: "Oil"

Book Review: “Oil” by Upton Sinclair (1927)
--Upon which the film “There Will Be Blood” is based.

This book is the basis of the present film, “There Will Be Blood,” nominated for an Oscar this evening. The lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, is also nominated for best actor. My prediction? At least Day-Lewis will win.

The film is only loosely based on the book. The film is an anti-capitalist Brechtian horror-show about oil capitalism, riveting and obsessive. Day-Lewis plays the oil baron, Daniel Plainview, as a larger-than-life monster interested in only one thing – oil wealth. In the process, Plainview raises a baby, left by a dead oil worker, to charm investors, and perhaps give him one human thing to love. Even this fake son is rejected by Plainview at the end of the film. The film ends in a Grand Guginol murder in a private bowling alley, where rapacious capitalism and crooked religion come to terms.

Upton Sinclair has enjoyed something of a revival in these times. Eric Schlosser was inspired by Sinclair's “The Jungle” when he wrote “Fast Food Nation”, an exposure of the state of corporate food in the U.S., especially the meat industry. The recent secret Humane Society tapes of downed and sick cows being forced into the slaughterhouses only shows the problem of animal cruelty and enforcement has not changed since Sinclair wrote about it. It may even have gotten worse.

Now Sinclair’s take on oil has gotten a revival. What bourgeois writer has ever talked about oil, except perhaps as a backdrop to a human interest story, as in “Five Easy Pieces?” Try going on a website and advocate the nationalization of the oil industry – especially at this critical time. The sheep will “Baa” and “Baa” and say you cannot do that. Oil still holds the ultimate power as a product in late imperialist capitalism. Our government, our president, our economy and our wars are based on it.

The book and film both display the concrete nitty-gritty of real oil work and oil workers’ lives. People who have worked in the oil industry in East Texas say the film is quite accurate, and the film is based on Sinclair’s images. Detailed descriptions of how to drill for oil, all the equipment necessary to drill a well, and the problems encountered while doing so, run through the book. In the book, Plainview is not described as a monster. He is a quite skilled, hard-working and kind man, who has a real son, Bunny, not a fake son. Bunny accompanies him everywhere he goes and even helps discover oil, as he accidentally steps in some pooling on the ground around Paradise, California while they are quail hunting. The boy Paul, who tells them there might be oil on the family farm, is not a thieving informer as in the film, but a tough, bright boy who grows into being a Communist, and is beaten to death by fascist American thugs at the end of the book.

In the book, Plainview loves Bunny, and Bunny loves his old man. But Bunny, who is actually the central character of the book, is appalled at what the old man has to do to lease, drill and defend ‘his’ oil. Plainview buys off politicians to get roads built, gives ‘premiums’ to vendors to get equipment in place quickly, deceives land owners about what is under their property, is close friends with the police, newspapermen and heads of schools, and eventually has to join the Employers Association. The Federal Government orders an oil workers’ union contract while World War I is going on, to ensure labor peace. When the war ends, things change. The Association hires gun thugs to break the eventual strike in the oil fields that develops against de-certification. They bring in scabs, deport anyone they can, jail everyone they can, blacklist pro-union workers, and coordinate propaganda campaigns against “communism” with the local newspapers. The old man tells Bunny he can’t quit the Association or they would destroy him too, even if he is a capitalist. This subtley shows that even 'kind' people have to do 'awful' things if the 'system' requires it.

Paul’s brother becomes the religious leader and Prophet Eli, of the ‘Third Revelation.” In the book, Eli becomes wealthy performing fake healings and making endless bombastic radio sermons. He tells the oil workers that they don’t need a union, they only need God to take them to heaven. Even Plainview makes donations to him, in case Eli’s help is needed in some “oil” matter. When Paul is assassinated at the end, Eli lies and claims Paul had told him he was no longer an atheist, and so gives Paul a religious funeral.

The larger political environment of the book is around the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution. Bunny’s dilemma, as he is repulsed by raw capitalism, is whether he will become a ‘socialist’ or a ‘communist.’ This dialog between the two left sides goes on through most of the book. Bunny helps arrested union strikers get out of jail, rescues an old Jewish socialist from being deported, and gets Paul out of jail too. This is all due to the money his father gives him, and also due to his father’s weight in the community, Angel City, which is probably a thinly disguised version of Los Angeles. They call Bunny a ‘parlour pink’ in the yellow newspaper, the Daily Howler, but he does his best to help the working class.

Bunny is swayed to the left by Paul, who is drafted into the U.S. army and sent to Vladivostok to help the Whites during the Russian ‘civil war.” There Paul sees how the business men are using the U.S. army to gain a foothold in Russia and Siberia. He becomes a Bolshevik, along with many other American soldiers, and returns home to the oil fields. Sinclair, who ran for Congress as a Socialist in California, is quite positive about the Bolshevik Revolution throughout the book. He quite rightly shows how it was the ordinary people that had finally seized the reins of power.

Bunny lives his personal life going through college, having romances with rich women, driving his motorcars, taking foreign trips and eventually hooking up with a movie star. It is clear Sinclair, evern the materialist, sees that no matter what Bunny thinks, he is swayed by his money and class condition to live life in a certain way. Bunny is kind of able to have his ‘radical’ cake and eat his “bourgeois” cake too. He is still an honest boy at that, and starts a left-wing sheet for students and young people with one of the members of the youth arm of the Socialist Party, Rachel. He eventually weds Rachel and starts a school for leftists on a farm, with money from his now dead father’s depleted and looted oil fortune.

Sinclair clearly sees oil as not just an American issue. Sinclair show Plainview becoming part of a syndicate getting an oil lease in Mosul, now Iraq. Some things never change. No blood for oil ... otherwise “there will be blood.”

Order it from MayDay Books!
--Red Frog, 2/24/2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Open forum on the elections

The major candidates do not support immediate withdrawal from Iraq, universal single-payer healthcare or any number of goals of the progressive movement. So what is to be done? Come to a forum and discuss!

Mayday election forum - Photo Hosted at Buzznet

Thursday, February 7, 2008


The University in Chains –
Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex – by Henry Giroux, 2007

This is one of those cases where someone reads a book so that you don’t have to. This book by a Canadian professor is heavy on the pedagogical and repetitious verbiage of academe, and low on clarity and brevity. Its laudable point is to warn about the present attack on academic freedom in the university, waged by fundamentalist Christians, corporate theorists and right-wing politicos. I assume its target audience are those academics who can tolerate academic jargon. He takes the title, of course, from an actual quote by Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican who looks like a liberal Democrat in light of the decay of politics in the U.S.

Giroux’s thesis is that after 9/11, the government and right wing in the United States have increased their attack on the ‘traitors’ in higher education, in an attempt to control the faculty, course content, research and direction of the modern college. He separates his book into three main chapters – one on the militarization of the universities, one on the corporatization of the universities, and one on the right wing assault, lead by people like David Horowitz, against academic freedom, progressive faculty, research and course material. To boil it down, Giroux thinks the right wants the university to train, not teach, and to prevent a free range of thinking, and replace it by allegiance to corporate and military America. The plan, in essence, is to have universities be the direct handmaidens of the military, the corporation and the government, and to eliminate ANY official space for democracy, and dissident thinking or research. This thesis fits with the thesis that claims U.S. society is slowly veering into a sort of absolutist ‘corporatist’ environment, a totalitarian ‘democracy’, call it what you will.

His first chapter on the military on campus is the most vague, generally attacking national government policy. Military penetration of the University has gone far beyond the ROTC program. Giroux identifies the military as the third largest source of research grants in the U.S. university system - 350 colleges engage in it, mostly in electrical engineering, computer sciences, metallurgy and oceanography. MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the U of Texas are the most prominent. Certain ‘for-profit’ colleges have now become almost exclusive higher training centers for U.S. military personnel, including internet universities like the University of Phoenix. In the 70s, the CIA worked with hundreds of academics over a hundred campuses. That number has now increased, as the military is absolutely flush with money. Prominent members of the Harvard, Yale and Columbia faculty openly encourage students to join the secret services like the CIA. The DOD even convinced some members of the American Anthropological Association to develop some of the techniques used at Abu Ghraib. Theories like ‘non-linear’ warfare, which says that the military should move LATERALLY through walls and buildings, or above or under obstacles, were developed by theorists in the university setting.

Needless to say, people who work with the CIA and DOD are secretive and trade in disinformation, compared to the normal openness required by academic research. This is one of the obvious democratic contradictions ‘military’ academics faces.

Giroux’s second chapter is about the penetration of U.S. corporations into the life of the university to an unprecedented degree. Anyone working at the University of Minnesota will no doubt be aware of this. Medical companies contract immense amounts of research at the U. In fact, nationally, Big Pharma spends more on advertising than research, as much of theirs is done at public institutions like the University, on the public’s dime.

The modern theory, according to Giroux, is that the University is not a democratic space for the pursuit of truth or facts, but a corporation itself. Students are consumers, professors should tailor their teaching to the ‘market of ideas’ and the administrators are the CEO’s running this show. Worried about costs, and returns on investment, and ideas which do not fit into corporate America, only those benefiting academic ‘entrepreneurs.” Money, not truth, is the new standard. Intellectual ‘property’ is more important than intellectual competence. In fact, 60% of academics are now without tenure, partly due to the efforts of these new “CEOs,” thus ‘proletarianizing’ the faculty. Part time faculty increased 82% from 1987 to 1993. Even tenure for those now have it is no longer secure, as certain recent cases have shown.

The first step is to welcome corporate America in the front door – grants from corporations for buildings and sports pavilions; food corporations taking over food service; Barnes and Noble handling the book stores; VISA putting it’s name on “university’ credit cards, and perhaps even mandatory product placement inside classroom Powerpoint presentations!

Part of creating a new University is stopping the democratization of the University, and creating a ‘privileged’ elite, which can afford soaring tuition rates, even if they have to put themselves in peony for many years by taking on large student loans. Giroux estimates the average student debt now at $30,000, almost double just 5 years ago. This process has been obvious on the U of M campus, where tuition increases have been much higher than inflation for years. The old ‘land grant’ institution of the 60s-70s, which lead to tens of thousands of working class children going to college (and leading to much radicalism on campus) has been replaced by an ostensibly ‘elite’ school, with the poor and working class elements being sent to 2 year or out-state schools.

While people still study the liberal arts (a dangerous thing, that), the hard and useful sciences are where the emphasis of the modern University is, as the liberal arts do not translate directly into jobs, or act as very good feeder ramps for local corporations.

He gives examples of academics in the pay of outside corporations who have done studies that support the products they study, while routinely ignoring proper methodology. If the study finds problems with a product, sometimes it has been suppressed. Professors who’s research creates problems for certain products or ideas favorable to some corporation are attacked in public, and academic journals have pressure put on them not to publish their work.

Giroux points out universities may even face the great threat that blue collar workers have faced for many years – being replaced by a software program or ‘professor’ in India, teaching over the web, for a quarter of their pay. Students in the new corporate university will sit at home, alone at terminals, taking on-line tests, watching pop up videos, and will e-mail questions to instructors. Half of all universities in the U.S. now have on-line education. This way libraries, classrooms and labor can be trimmed immensely. Secondary education will become no more than mail-order ‘matchbox’ universities for many people. And of course the content of all these materials will be owned and controlled by the universities or the vendors that provide the content.

The third section concerns the right wing assault on the democratic space represented by the University. Giroux sees the best example of this in the myriad efforts of people like David Horowitz, a former leftist, now a lunatic reactionary who still sees commies and terrorists under every bed. Foundations dominated by extreme right businessmen, starting in 1973, have committed much money to black-listing professors that they see as insufficiently patriotic, or hostile to Israel, or as dissidents against the corporate state. They attempt to control curricula, staff, research and visiting professors. To do this, they work with reactionary yellow newspapers and cable channels, state institutions and conservative politicians, and corporatist ‘intellectual’ foundations like the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise, Manhattan, Hoover and Claremont Institutes. If it all looks somewhat like the McCarthy era, it is. Though Giroux insists this attempt is more sinister, as it is now directed, not just at ‘terrorists’ or ‘communists’ but at democracy itself. In essence, democracy has become explicitly subversive.

Giroux goes on to cite examples of attempts by Horowitz’s organizations to inhibit democracy on the University campus in recent years. Horowitz usually uses several reactionary students to either outright lie or to complain about hearing ideas they do not agree with, thus putting pressure on professors to tailor their courses to all their ‘customers’ – especially the conservative students. Instead of an exchange of ideas, normal for a democratic space, Horowitz wanst only a prescribed list of approved ideas. This can lead up to fights where conservative campus administrations and trustees, responding to massive pressure from right-wing groupings outside campus, and against the recommendations of department faculties, suspend or deny tenure to left-wing professors who have ideas and do research that does not flatter the corporate state.

An example of this left out of the book is the recent denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University in Chicago, after much pressure by Alan Dershowitz and the Likud lobby in the U.S. Finkelstein's work centered on the misuse of the Holocaust in the service of a "my country, right or wrong" position toward the State of Isreal. Finkelstein, after being recommended for tenure approval by his peers, was denied tenure by the school's Board on Tenure, and that decision was upheld by the president of DePaul. This decision reflects both the weakening position of the faculty and the inhibition of scholarship.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog, 2/6/2008

Friday, February 1, 2008