Wednesday, September 30, 2009

US Imperialism
The American flag is habitually burnt publically around the world by anti-imperialists while the Union flag of the United Kingdom rarely is, if ever. Second, the Stars and Stripes flies over the states of California and Texas, which America took by force from Mexico fewer than 150 years ago. Mexicans still call these states occupied territories. Unlike Britain, America has not yet decolonised, and continues to act in a brutal, imperialist fashion in many parts of the world. But what can one expect from a nation whose creation involved the genocide of one race and the subjugation of another.
David Short, Johannesburg
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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Local Boy Makes Good

“The Grass – A Young Man’s Journey to the Korean War” – Paul Zerby, 2009

Minneapolis’ own Paul Zerby has written a fictional account of a feisty young man from Fargo who ends up fighting in the Korean War. It is unknown how much of this is biography, and how much is fiction – but then, that is the essence of some kinds of literature. Zerby is a former lawyer and irascible DFL City Counsel person who represented the 2nd Ward on the West Bank. He himself was born in Fargo, went to the U and later shipped out for Korea. Writing this book seems to be something he has put off until ‘retirement’ – a story he has been carrying around for quite awhile.

The lead character, high-schooler Tom Kelly, initially believes that the Korean war is worth fighting, to save ‘the American way of life,’ because there was no doubt that the “Communists were trying to take over the world.’ By the end of the book, after being in Korea for a combat tour, Kelly doesn’t believe that anyone should die for any ‘isms’ anymore. It is not quite clear how this transformation happens – contact with warfare does not make all soldiers into pacifists. Kelly is quite an odd conglomeration of characteristics. He is a kid who talks about Hemingway without ever being seen reading him; who is loud, foul-mouthed and drinks Jack Daniels constantly, even at school; is mostly driven by sexual urgings in his relationships with women - i.e. a thoroughly conventional male. Yet he is also somehow class-consciousness, bookish, anti-racist and not afraid of authority. I have met this kind of person in the Midwest, but they are certainly a rarity.

The book starts by tracing Kelly’s life in Fargo, North Dakota, when one of his friends comes home in a box from Korea; where he romances an upper-class, conservative Christian named Moira who fancies herself an edgy progressive; and when he finally leaves his Democratic-populist, working-class parents to go to school at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, not to the agriculture school in Fargo. Throughout the book, Moira attempts to win him back, even though she will not have sex with him. This is the early ‘50s, after all, and she is an endless source of frustration to Tom.

In Minneapolis, Kelly starts taking classes, working part-time, and also joins ROTC. His first sexual experience is with a waitress at work who he doesn’t like that much except for sex. He also meets various leftists from the Socialist Workers Party, whom he calls ‘pseudo-intellectuals,’ and also the pivotal person in this narrative, Professor Theodore R Williams. Williams is a left-wing professor, and also the only black professor at the U at that time. Oddly enough, this professor seems to be modeled on the first black professor at the U that Nelson Peery helped get hired. (See the review of “Black Radical,” below.) The real professor’s name was Forrest O. Wiggins. He was hired as an instructor in the philosophy department in 1946 (when Peery helped get him hired), and terminated by the U administration in 1952 for political reasons (which Zerby probably protested.) As you might notice, discussing politics with the SWP and joining ROTC are usually mutually-exclusive activities. It certainly never happened in the 60s to my knowledge.

Kelly disagrees with but respects Williams. Williams comes out against the Korean War in public; like a fool, Kelly’s girlfriend Moira publicizes his stance in the Minnesota Daily; the administration decides to fire Williams, and, in an epic scene, Kelly leads a protest of hundreds of students against the firing by publicly arguing with the head of the University, Chancellor Werrecker. Kelly finishes the discussion by leading a foul-mouthed chant against the decision. That gets Kelly kicked out of ROTC and the University, and he heads back to Fargo, now known as a ‘communist sympathizer’ and a ‘nigger lover.’ During that time these designations were badges of honor, at least in retrospect. However, it seems unlikely that many real Tom Kellys earned them.

The hidden war in Korea – ignored by most of the population, somewhat like Iraq and Afghanistan – comes back to center stage. In 1952, Kelly decides to join the Army against the wishes of his family, his girlfriend, and his more radical friends like Will Lindeman, because he wants to ‘do the right thing.’ He is sent to boot camp in North Carolina, which also happens to be near the poor black college Professor Williams has been exiled to. At boot camp, he watches as a fat, slow soldier, Schlumpberger, who has been hazed and insulted for weeks, intentionally stands up in a live-fire exercise and get chopped in two by bullets. This starts the horrified Kelly on a writing jag, as he feels partly responsible for the suicide.

Kelly goes to visit Williams, who is thankful to see him, but is appalled that Kelly has joined the Army. The Professor feels somehow responsible for this. Kelly sees what happens to people that stand up to the power structure – Williams has aged, and he has become unhappy, as has his wife. The family is now poorer. Right before shipping out, Kelly has a 30-day furlough which he spends in New York City with a new woman he has met, Anna, and fantasizes about being a writer or going to Columbia. He spends most of the time trying to get this woman ‘in the sack’ – which is the slangy way Kelly usually puts things. On the last night, he succeeds. And they pledge their love.

Kelly lands at Pusan, and is immediately put in the field, where he shoots a young North Korean close-up on a hill called the “Witches Tit.” Then follow various maneuvers that take him through fields of exploding bodies, shit-soaked and pointless mud advances, deadly friendly fire, and trench warfare. He spends his 15 month tour along the 38th Parallel, as the two sides alternatively negotiate and fight. Nearly at the end of his term, he tries to help a black solider avoid court marshal by pretending the soldier is sick, not asleep on watch. At this point, he has already told his brass, Lieutenant Winton, that he does not believe in fighting the war anymore. Winton, a stiff West Pointer, is angered, and at the trial of the soldier, Kelly lies and is called a ‘nigger-lover’ again. Of course, Kelly later marries Anna and reluctantly returns to Korea’s DMZ in 2007 as a grandfather. He sees how Seoul has changed from a destitute, bomb-wracked town to a city of shining glass and skyscrapers.

I’ve read a lot of anti-war novels and this is one of the milder ones. Its real topic is the 50s in America, where most of the action takes place. The combination of the slangy attitude and the intellectuality of the lead character seem in conflict, and give Kelly an air of class unreality. Of course, he could, indeed be based on Paul Zerby … and Mr. Zerby is quite real.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 9/22/2009

Monday, September 14, 2009

The pathetic "Left" in the USA

As I've been arguing for quite some time, the problem in the USA is not the right; it's the left. More specifically, what masquerades as the left in the land of the free and the home of the brave. It's no use blaming the right: they're attack dogs for an entrenched plutocracy and they do their assigned job well. The fault lies with a pathetic, spineless, and gutless grouping that likes to masquerade as "left." If the US had a vocal and militant left, it probably wouldn't be up sh!t creek on so many fronts -- imperialistic quagmires in the Middle East, health care "reform," and the growing disparity between the rich few and a growing army of dispossessed -- to name but a few.

It seems Chris Hedges is of like opinion in his latest essay:

The right wing is not wrong. It is not the problem. We are the problem. If we do
not tap into the justifiable anger sweeping across the nation, if we do not
militantly push back against corporate fraud and imperial wars that we cannot
win or afford, the political vacuum we have created will be filled with
right-wing lunatics and proto-fascists. The goons will inherit power not because
they are astute, but because we are weak and inept.

My apologies for not reviewing some book but unlike my erudite friend, Red Frog, I am in Norway and lack access to books.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Apres Le Deluge, C'est Moi

“The Coming Insurrection” by the Invisible Committee, 2007 French edition, 2009 English Ed.

This slim philosophical book was written by friends of a group of anarchists in Tarnac, France, who were arrested in 2008 for supposedly planning a ‘terrorist’ attack on the French rail system’s electrical lines (!). This book issues out of the ‘ecole superieure’ and the hated French school system, not the lumpen proletariat, of which the authors are enamored. It is written in beautiful, elliptic prose, and initially traces the psychological and personal deterioration of French society and its citizens. It advocates communism, but seems to primarily advocate revolution in order to end personal and social alienation.

There is much to value here. What it does say about the hidden personal problems of French citizens is no doubt accurate, and similar to our society. Both populations live in advanced, deteriorating capitalist societies, with all of the psychological ramifications that that implies – compulsive overwork, weak social bonds, passivity, bad relationships, crumbling marriages, and alienated selves. Capitalism’s vaunted strength – its emphasis on “YOU” the individual, is a vast commercial lie. Behind that lie wait SWAT teams, prisons, surveillance, rent-a-guards, predator drones and all manner of compulsion.

The Invisible Committee’s sensitivity to the social breakdown in France comes after the 2005 riots by mostly Arab youth, when 2 youth were gunned down by the French flics. These riots lasted for months because of the close coordination of the youth of these neighborhoods, and the authors maintain that these are the only real communities in France. They also draw present inspiration from the 2007 Greek riots, lead by left-wing forces, that successfully stymied the Greek state. The present economic slide across Europe is adding fuel to this fire of spontaneous struggle.

They direct part of their attention to the notion of over-work in France, Japan and the U.S. Their analysis is a reflection of the collapse in secure labor, and the growth in the unemployed, the lumpen-proletariat, the partially-employed, the street merchant, the transitory worker, the temp, the homeless and hidden homeless. Except for the upper-middle class of high-level engineers, lawyers, programmers and managers who they quite rightly identify as people who ‘never stop working,’ advanced capitalism is creating, all over the world, a vast army of the unemployed and the marginally productive. The’ flexibility’ and ‘mobility’ favored by late capital for their workforce is only a reflection of this basic collapse in stability. In essence, it repeats the obvious assertion that we, as workers, are wage slaves. And who wants to be a slave of any kind?

The Committee disdains every organized force on the left in France. They wish to be ‘as impenetrable to state intervention as a gypsy camp.’ I quote: “Becoming autonomous could just as easily mean learning to fight in the street, to occupy empty houses, to cease working, to love each other madly, and to shoplift.” Shoplifting, of course, is just an understood cost of doing business.

The Committee is acutely aware of the vulnerability of the advanced urban metropolis. Their view of low-level war in the metropolises of the world is very similar to Mike Davis’s view in “Planet of Slums” (reviewed on the blog, below) – it is the new battleground, already recognized by the ruling elites’ military forces. They give credit to Blanqui for being the first to think of non-linear warfare, a philosophy that has been adopted by various western military forces. Given the interconnectedness of everything, they believe electrical grids can be brought down with careful explosions that will turn the lights off across Europe. They insist French society is quite similar to the USSR under Andropov … the French rulers no longer even pretend to rule in the name of the people anymore.

The Committee considers ‘environmentalism’ under capitalism to be an attempt by capital to save the same people who … destroyed the planet. Capital’s new version of environmentalism will create super-profits for some corporations, and allow the state to exert further control over the population. This is precisely the plan of Al Gore and Barack Obama, of course. The Committee favors a bloody planetary collapse as better than further capitalist crisis management. As a photographic negative of the capitalists (See Naomi Klein “Shock Doctrine”, reviewed below) they also believe that disaster can be beneficial, but in an opposite way - bringing people closer to reality, and rebellion.

They cite Hurricaine Katrina as an example, an event Klein also cited to draw a different lesson. The failure by the Bush administration over Katrina undermined his political support, and threw some of it to Obama. The Committee contend that the growth in community organizations in the wake of the hurricane proves that disasters are beneficial. However, pro-union laws were put in abeyance after Katrina. The same firms that made out like bandits in Iraq also made billions on Katrina. The City of New Orelans was depopulated of some black residents permanently. Many are still scattered across the U.S. or living in trailers. Whole neighborhoods are empty patchworks of homes. Many died or were injured. And to this day, the Corps of Engineers STILL doesn’t think a Category 5 hurricane dike is necessary. You will look long and hard to find ‘gains’ – only misery, and humans coping with misery. Sometimes disasters don’t create rebellion – they create destruction. Tell the survivors of the Tsunami in India about its benefits. Oppression oppresses. It does not automatically create rebellion. Or as someone once said, "Apres le Deluge, c'est moi."

The Committee notes that, in the homeland of the idea of the ‘nation,’ the concept of the French national state has ended, They conclude as to ‘civilization’ as a whole – ‘We have a corpse on our backs.”

Instead of seeing events as atrocities or indignities, they point out that events should be looked at as part of low-level warfare. They advocate avoiding far left, activist and community groups, and forming unbreakable communes and ‘base committees’ to prepare for an insurrection now. For money, the communes are to rely on hustling, some work, public funds, trafficking, theft, dumpster diving and fraud. This frees up people’s time for revolutionary activities – target practice, learning to set broken bones, pick locks, run pirate radio stations, learn urban agricultural practices, develop expertise in computers and other technical skills. They want to create different-sized free territories in the cities, geographic spaces opaque to the military, but known to the residents. They advocate personal travel around Europe and the world to make contacts. They also advocate sabotage at a minimum of risk and time, and for maximum damage. They believe in becoming anonymous, not public; developing the ability of self-defense; and destroying government computer databases.

The Committee eventually advocates linking up all the communes for an insurrection, perhaps at a moment of crisis. They oppose assemblies or mass voting at these critical times, believe in ‘blocking the economy’ through shutdowns; liberating territory without direct confrontations and deposing local officials. They think a military insurrection is only the very last step, basing themselves on the experience of the Paris Commune.

The philosophic conflict between Marxism and anarchism has been a long one, and I will not get into it here. Some of these things Marxists can agree with and are useful counter-weights to liberalism, of course. For instance, actual Marxist organizations have both a public and a non-public face. However, in much of this, it is Blanqui again – a select conspiracy of rage. I cannot assess the class character of the proponents, but again, the document has the air of the ‘ecole superieure.’ Events have shown that many kinds of public legal struggle, like mass marches, have become increasingly futile in advanced capitalist countries, which certainly accounts for this document. What is truly significant is that this book was even written. It is a thermometer held to the temper of the times.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, September 8, 2009

Friday, September 4, 2009

Imperialism and Financialism

The following is a lucidly written essay by Nitzan and Bichler on the evolution of the terms "imperialism" and "financialism" among Marxists:

It's a 13-page printout and I've never seen the terms so clearly discussed. Like many people, I grew up with Baran and Sweeezy's "Monopoly Capital"; and like many others I've read Foster and Magdoff's recent "The Great Financial Crisis." But I've been blissfully ignorant of how the discussion among Marxists has gradually shifted over the decades -- partly because the same terms are used.

Nitzan and Bichler are famous for their 2002 book, "The Global Political Economy of Israel," which perhaps Mayday Books had in stock some years back.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Have You Cashed Out Today?

“The Great Crash, 1929,” by John Kenneth Galbraith, with 1988 forward, 1954 – 1988.

This classic, recently cited by Rolling Stone’s Matt Tiabbi in his roaring Goldman Sachs take-down, should be read by everyone interested in the present market meltdown. In elegant, humorous, evenly-paced prose, Galbraith elucidates the story of the 1929 crash month by month, week by week, nailing every pompous fool, while staying remarkably even-handed. He follows it up with a short section relating the crash to the Great Depression. Galbraith is best known as a Keynesian, which in this day and age signifies a veritable revolutionary. However, Galbraith insists that ‘robbery’ is an individual failing, not a failing of any one class. He is, after all, a defender of a humanized capitalism.

In Galbraith’s 1988 forward (written right after the 1987 crash) he insists that market bubbles are based on 3 things: “a vested interest in euphoria;’ the ‘speculative instinct’ and tax reductions that benefit the wealthy. Contrary to the trickle-down, supply- side theory that says when rich people get money, they buy plant and equipment, and put people to work (such generous wonders!) – Galbraith points out that they actually put their money into speculation and luxury goods. I.E. tax cuts for the rich are very good for yacht builders and hedge funds, not capital improvement.

During 1929 there was no FDIC; no insider-trading rules, no government regulation of the NYSE, no wall between banks and capital markets; no rules on margin; no rules on leverage or assets on hand; no rules on price manipulation; no rules on public disclosures, no rules barring insider trading, and a confirmed overall policy of no government intervention. Imaginative financial products were encouraged. Inflation was feared; deficits were hated and a balanced budget was the goal of all good Republicans and Democrats. It is for you to decide how much this looks like today’s picture.

Investment trusts were one of the new financial inventions, buying stock in many other companies, including other investment trusts. At their height, they controlled $3B in assets. Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation was one of the largest and most prominent investment trusts, cited by Taibbi when he pointed out Goldman’s continuing role in ‘bringing down the house.’ These trusts were similar to the present mutual fund. However, they were so highly leveraged that only tiny real assets controlled massive amounts of what later became illusory capital. One investment trust, highly secretive, successfully solicited funds ‘for an Undertaking which shall in due time be revealed.’ And no one laughed.

Prior to the meltdown in October and November 1929, the market had an incredible run-up. People felt that it would never end, and that they all deserved to make ridiculous amounts of money for essentially doing nothing. Harvard and Yale professors, captains of industry, the press (with the notable exception of the New York Times and Standard & Poor’s) and government politicians like Hoover all joined in the chorus. But as Galbraith points out, every run-up has the seeds of its own destruction within it. Most players, of course, think they can get out in time. What made 1929 unique was that it teased the speculators and ‘investors’ into believing they could turn the market around – with positive thoughts, with ‘organized intervention’ (the banks agreeing to support the market by buying stock…which happened several times) and, even, companies buying their OWN stock to prop up the price. In effect, as Galbraith says, ‘swindling themselves,’ as the stock was then nearly worthless.

One myth Galbraith punctures is that ‘everyone’ was in the market in 1929. He points out that the market dominated the culture, and made brokers and corporate insiders into cocktail-party heroes. As he slyly puts it, “Wisdom, itself, is often an abstraction associated not with fact or reality but with the man who asserts it and the manner of its assertion.” And “it is far, far better to be wrong in a respectable way than to be right for the wrong reasons.” By his calculation, out of a population of 120 million, 1.5 million owned stock, and of those, 600,000 were speculators on margin. This, really, is a small proportion of the whole population.

Tuesday, October 29, 1929 was probably the most devastating day on any market in history – 33,000,000 shares would have traded all day if the volume had kept up with what happened in the first ½ hour. As Galbraith says, the first week was the slaughter of the market innocents, but “during the second week there is some evidence that it was the well-to-do and the wealthy who were being subjected to a leveling process comparable in magnitude and suddenness to that presided over a decade before by Lenin.” The ‘Crash,’ or should we say ‘Slide,’ lead to a continual decline in stock prices for 3 years, until 1932.

Another myth he takes a shot at is that a good number of speculators and bankers later committed suicide. While we might find this myth oddly comforting, unfortunately the rates for New York City rose only after time, and he attributes this to the Depression itself. It was the poor hurling themselves off bridges, not the rich. What he found more interesting – and what we are finding anew – is that embezzlement, fraud and financial weakness were suddenly revealed on a massive scale. 1929 revealed crooks like Chase Bank’s Albert Wiggins, National City Bank’s Charles Mitchell and even the head of the New York Stock Exchange itself, Richard Whitney. The latter’s indictment was the day the business class surrendered to Roosevelt. In today's Great Recession, Bernie Madoff has become the largest swindler in world history – stealing billions. Here in Minneapolis we have several large Ponzi thieves of our very own - Tom Petters and Denny Hecker to name two. The whole nation is now dotted with indicted schemers and embezzlers who presided over failed hedge funds and businesses that were highly leveraged on the basis of … lies. Seeing what was behind these illusory fortunes is the inevitable aftermath of a broken bubble.

Galbraith talks of tax cuts as a Keynesian response to a financial crisis. It is, indeed, the only action Hoover took, and Galbraith applauds it. Hoover’s mistake was to announce the crisis over, and over, and over again. And he paid with his job.

Galbraith thinks the Crash is related to the Great Depression in 5 ways. Conventional wisdom has it that cheap money (the Federal Reserve lowered rates in mid-1929) caused the speculation. He asserts there are times when money is cheap and yet speculation does NOT occur because the pre-requisite ‘euphoria’ is not present. (Note to the Austrian monetarist followers of Ron Paul.)

Galbraith’s 5 reasons:

1. Bad Distribution of Income. 5% of the population has 1/3rd of the income. The collapse in buying power of the rich affected production more that it might now – they were vital to consumerism and to savings and investment.
2. Bad Corporate Structure. Instead of being prudent, American business was full of ‘grafters, promoters, swindlers, imposters and frauds.’ Investment trusts and holding companies were inherently unstable, as they had little real assets. I.E. too much leverage.
3. Bad Banking Structure. A domino effect of one failing bank lead to it knocking down the next one, and so on. 346 banks failed in the first 6 months of 1929, for instance.
4. The high balance of payments account with the rest of the world. The U.S. was a ‘creditor’ nation. Dangerous loans made around the world could not be paid back. In addition, the tariff was increased, which damaged farm and industrial exports.
5. Poor state of economic intelligence. No matter the economic situation, the parties supported an increase in taxes or reduction in spending, to balance the budget and to stop inflation. As Galbraith puts it, “The simple precepts of a simple world did not hold amid the growing complexities of the early thirties.”

Galbraith ends the book with a excessively sanguine conclusion, as he points out in 1988 that the laws passed in the 30s mitigate some of these 5 problems. However, in 1988 when he wrote the last intro, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act had not been passed, and Glass-Steagal had not been repealed. Nor had requirements for bank assets been lowered farther - something the SEC allowed to happen in 2004. For instance, some present banks like Ing have 42 to 1 ratios of debt to assets. In addition, the distribution of income has gotten increasingly worse since 1988. And of key interest - government regulators do not actually have to USE the laws they have. The slavishness of the government to Wall Street reached a nadir under Clinton and Bush - also after 1988.

The U.S. is now a debtor nation, which has allowed us – so far – to blackmail holders of dollars and Treasuries into continued support. And the FDIC has prevented – so far – a run on the banks, because of the experience with the Depression. However, the FDIC will need to be re-funded very soon. The ruling class HAS learned that passivity is not its own reward – which accounts for the massive bi-partisan action to save some brokerage firms and banks by Bush and now Obama - an action which to this point has succeeded for the big banks.

And I bought it at MayDay books used-book section –
Red Frog, 9/1/2009