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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Doug Henwood said...

Hey, I'm a Marxist revolutionary of some sort. It's just hard to figure out how to be one in 2008. I spend a lot of time on that actually, even if it's not always apparent.

Red Frog said...

Actually, you are right, and I apolgize. I think you know one of my friends from high school and Northfield, Christine...

I'll fix the post.

Keep up the good work, always appreciate your analyses. I work in the securities industry and so am exposed to the 'inside story' at times. That helps me understand you!