Thursday, February 25, 2010

K-illusion Kultural Kriticism - Two-Fer

“Empire of Illusion – the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” by Chris Hedges, 2009

Chris Hedges is famous for writing the anti-war book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” He has a working-class background, but also found his way into the seminary, so the bit of moralism exhibited in that book comes from a familiar source. In “Empire of Illusion” Hedges follows up with a totally different subject – the dance of shadows that is bourgeois culture. I was expecting a full-blooded analysis of various cultural mirages that work upon the American people, and a defense of reading. After all, entertainment has replaced religion, and ranks right up with alcohol as the ‘opium’ of the people. Instead, the book only partly covers that issue, while mostly being a familiar jeremiad against all things Bush and all things Democratic Party.

Hedges covers some parts of the empire of illusion – for instance, the role of wrestling as cultural marker. Wrestling was first analyzed by Roland Barthes from a Marxist point of view, and so this is an update. Hedges shows how class is now one of the markers in the U.S. ring. Hedges stops by to look at TV and journalism briefly; spends two large chapters on pornography as the unreal and humiliating replacement for sex; analyzes ‘positive psychology’ in its quest to blind people to the condition of the real world, and covers the decay of scholarship in corporate universities, and its replacement by training. All of these things help people avoid looking at the reality all around them. However, the largest sections of the book are redundant attacks on corporate America, abandoning his main topic. For my money, the pornography chapters are the most valuable.

Reading is the source of the deepest ‘formal’ knowledge. Personal experience, the experience of friends and family, scientific experiments, and the experience of organizations are intimate. More formal knowlege comes from incidents covered on television, then in films, or documentaries, and on to reading newspapers, magazines and the net, and finally in massive detail, in books – all make up a spreading pool of knowledge. Hedges says little about this, except to decry the obvious aliteracy, limited literacy and illiteracy of a majority of people in the US – and the dangers this poses to democracy. The fact that no present major figure even discusses this proves his point.

Hedges brushes on the failed culture of bourgeois journalism; the ubiquitous nature and consistently deceptive content of television, such as reality television; the powerful effect of the shared myths in films; and most potent of all - the mass spectacle of sports. These areas seem to fit into the culture of illusion – but, curiously enough, they are for the most part absent from the book. He frequently cites Neil Postman’s excellent 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” showing his book to be in this tradition of sociological critiques of U.S. culture. His frequent lapses into political rhetoric are the only thing that mar this volume.

“Culture of Fear – Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” by Barry Glassner, 2009

This book links to Hedges book in the sense that they both talk about how bourgeois culture’s nearly full-time role is to hide the realities behind the scenes. The Wizard of Oz is a powerful ogre until his curtain is pulled aside. Both Hedges and Glassner attempt to pull back the curtain of U.S. culture. Glassner has a more scientific approach and keeps on topic. He catalogs in a factual manner all the ‘mis-direction’ that the American media issue to hide the reality that cannot speak its name. That reality – poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, lack of health care, the tyranny of corporations, lack of democracy, war, foreclosures – cannot be feared, because fearing them would make the population face their real problems. To avoid this is the essence of creating fake problems, which mostly lead people to ‘blame the victims’ or concentrate on the wrong things.

Glassner essentially describes the press-driven scares of the 90s, and shows how they bear little resemblance to reality by citing science and facts. Fear of decreasing crime, fear by whites of black men, hatred of teen-age moms, fear of ostensible killer children, mysterious ‘metaphoric’ microbes, road rage, Gulf War syndrome, infrequent plane wrecks, asbestos, house mold, foreign terrorists, illegal drugs, ‘political correctness,’ breast implants, date rape drugs, rap music, child abduction, cyber-smut, pedophiles, Halloween candy – all these outsize fears come in for a lashing. He is an equal-opportunity critic – liberal fears like Gulf War Syndrome and breast implants also get lambasted,

Glassner thinks there are 5 things that make a good ‘fear’ story in the U.S. 1, it has to have some anecdotal evidence – tearful mothers, catching personal testimony. 2, it has to have some shaky but repeated secondary scientific ‘authority’ to promote it. 3, it has to be endorsed and repeated by important news or political persons. 4, it has to have some statistic that looks good on the surface until you look under the hood. And 5, most importantly, it has to reflect some more deep-seated concern that the fake fear displaces, and therefore hides.

Take implants. While, according to Glassner, most science indicated they were not responsible for the many serious and varied problems they were blamed for, feminists used this matter to attack the masculine medical industry, which would insert bags into womens’ bodies for men’s pleasure. This was at a time when the issue of abortion was being hammered by the Right, and the ability to have an abortion was starting to disappear. People angry about the Gulf War could direct their anger about the war into the GWS issue – and not the issue of imperialist militarism. According to Glassner, GWS had no definitive medical insignia. I myself think Gulf War syndrome will show up in latent cancers, based on exposure to radiation from depleted uranium, so I am not as happy as Glassner to call it a fraud.

While these two were liberal issues, most of the other issues are conservative ones. The constant talk about crime, for instance, even when statistics show it is declining, indicates that ‘fear’ and the local news are twins. Television is crowded with programs that feature various grisly murders and the ‘heroic’ people that solve them. Fear of other people is at the heart of most conservative scares. It is designed to get people to distrust anyone other than immediate family members and friends, and break down any social solidarity that might develop. These fears are just part of the culture wars waged by the Right. It is what they point to as the ‘decay’ of civilization. Glassner would agree – but it is not these ridiculous issues that are ruining the U.S.

Glassner shows a bit too much faith in any scientific testing – even going on to say at one point that tests on their own products sponsored by the medical industry are as accurate as any other. Anyone familiar with the practice of science in the United States knows that even scientists can be bought; can alter statistics; can structure a test to prove a pre-determined point. Skepticism when it comes to corporate ‘tests’ is a necessity, as it has been shown that companies have changed or hidden results. But for the most part Glassner stays on-course, and teaches us to be wary of the fake fears promoted by politicians, neurotics and the news media.

And I bought them at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 2/25/2010

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Worker restiveness in Europe

As Mayday's distinguished (albeit unpaid) foreign correspondent in Europe, I suppose I should cite this article in today's Independent:

A wave of industrial and social unrest is building across Europe as workers
resist attempts by governments and private companies to impose austerity
policies, drive down wages and rescue some nations from near-bankruptcy.

Huge protest rallies took place in cities across Spain last night; today
a general strike could paralyse Greece while industrial action at French
airports and oil plants as well as the narrowly averted stoppage at Germany's
Lufthansa promise to be just the start of the greatest demonstration of public
unrest seen on the continent since the revolutionary fervour of 1968. Europe's
industrial economy is not clear of recession yet either and with unemployment
rising and demands for austerity growing, Europe's workers are becoming
increasingly restive.
I don't want to do an extensive copy-and-paste but I recommend the article be read in full to grasp the dimensions of the European crisis. The political arrangements that lie at the foundations of the capitalist system at any point in time tend to be makeshift and ad-hoc, jettisoned when they no longer work. This applies to Europe with the same strength as it does to the US. As I see it, there are two aspects. The first is how Europe will fit into a fluid and changing global economy -- one which incidentally it's crucially dependent on for trade. The second is what will happen (and is happening) in Europe itself. My humble opinion is that the "Club Med" countries -- the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) -- will leave the Eurozone (but not the EU). The inner core will be "Mitteleuropa": Germany, France, Benelux, Scandinavia, Austria. The eurozone was built on a dream of a united Europe -- a fairytale. The present strains between Northern Europe and Mediterranean Europe show how absurd the dream was. Worker restiveness in Spain and Greece is a symptom both of the unworkability of that dream and the global economic crisis that has demonstrated the flaws of the conception of Europe.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A country of serfs

I read the articles of Paul Craig Roberts with keen appreciation; he has a knack for explaining seemingly complex things in pellucid and succinct fashion. Here is an excerpt from his latest:

Policymakers who are banking on stimulus programs are thinking in terms of an economy that no longer exists.... The U.S. labor force is being separated from the incomes associated with the goods and services that it consumes. With the rise of offshoring, layoffs are not only due to restrictive monetary policy
and inventory buildup. They are also the result of the substitution of cheaper
foreign labor for U.S. labor by American corporations. Americans cannot be
called back to work to jobs that have been moved abroad. In the New Economy,
layoffs can continue despite low interest rates and government stimulus

To the extent that monetary and fiscal policy can stimulate U.S.
consumer demand, much of the demand flows to the goods and services that are
produced offshore for U.S. markets. China, for example, benefits from the
stimulation of U.S. consumer demand. The rise in China’s GDP is financed by a
rise in the U.S. public debt burden.

Another barrier to the success of stimulus programs is the high debt
levels of Americans. The banks are being criticized for a failure to lend, but
much of the problem is that there are no consumers to whom to lend. Most
Americans already have more debt than they can handle.

In short, the stimulus programs are a complete crock. Now where did I stash my whiskey bottle?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Arm A Gettin’ -- Out

“Ecological Revolution,” by John Bellamy Foster, 2009

Marxist theory has been crossing the desert. Recent Marxist theorists either make contributions so minuscule as to go unnoticed, or make academic ones that barely register in the real world. Anyone who can point to a major contribution by a recent theorist, other than the group around Monthly Review, gets a free drink from me.

Foster, on the other hand, has made a massive breakthrough. Essentially Foster illustrates the strong environmentalism in the work of Marx and Engels; and Foster uses these insights to show that the present environmental crisis cannot be solved under capitalism.

Bourgeois ecologists like Al Gore, petit-bourgeois ‘deep-ecology’ theorists and crude productionist Marxists inspired by the Soviet Union in the 1930s all oppose the idea that Marx cared about sustainability.

Who said this?
“The private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias {good heads of the household}.”
-- Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III. This is not the ‘young Marx’ but the mature Marx speaking.

Or this?
“…it {is} intolerable that ‘all creatures have been made into property; the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth – all living things must also become free.’ ” Black Elk? Some hippy? No, Marx, approvingly quoting the peasant revolutionary Thomas Muntzer.

Marx observed that capital introduced alienation, not just of labor, but between the earth and society. Both the soil and labor were exploited for essentially private profit. Marx, basing his work on Liebig, a German soil chemist, wrote extensively about how soil was exhausted in order to feed the cities, and then the human waste of the cities, instead of being recycled, was thrown in the Thames, polluting the water. He pointed out that the soil of Ireland had been used up for the profit of London. Capitalists scoured the battlefields of Europe for bones, and islands in Peru for guano, until they discovered how to make artificial agricultural fertilizer. And this chemically-based fertilizer, Foster points out, is a non-renewable resource. As is the oil used in the agricultural machines. Foster illustrates how Marx observed that capital creates a ‘metabolic’ rift between society and nature.

Marx again, Capital, Vol. 1:
“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in raising the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility... Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques … undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.” Soil condition was the key environmental issue of the day, as it directly related to the issue of food. However, according to Foster, Marx did not just concern himself with soil issues, but deforestation, desertification, climate change, the elimination of deer from the forests, the commodification of species, pollution, industrial wastes, toxic contamination, recycling, the exhaustion of coal mines, disease, overpopulation and the evolution and co-evolution of species.

Foster then lists the contributions of dozens of other Marxists and socialists to environmentalism, showing that the socialist tendency made the original environmental critique. William Morris, Henry Salt, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, VI Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin, VI Vernadsky, NI Vavilov, Alexander Oparin, Christopher Caldwell, Myman Levy, Lancelot Hogben, JD Bernal, Benjaming Farrington, JBS Haldane, Joseph Heedham were all Marxists and socialists that made contributions to environmental theory. The dedicated environmentalist Lunacharskii was appointed by Lenin to be in charge of conservation for the USSR. In 1919 Lenin set aside in the southern Urals the first nature preserve in the world for the exclusive study of nature. Conspicuously missing from this list is Leon Trotsky, and this author will attempt to see if this is a political omission or a factual one. Foster indicates that in the 1930s in the USSR, Lysenkoism and bureaucratism throttled the dialectic as applied to nature, and environmental thought died out among those influenced by this strand of Marxism.

Even today, it is nations and areas with a strong socialist currents – in Cuba, Venezuela, Kerala in India, Curitiba & Porto Alegre in Brazil, and Evo Morales in Bolivia – that are making the largest strides towards sustainability. Even China – which was built on a ‘productionist’ view of development – has decreed almost a trillion dollars be spent on wind farms and solar production, and they are now the leading solar producers in the world. The government shut down 100s of coal mines at the drop of a hat. They outlawed plastic bag production by decree. They made it mandatory that every new office building now built be LEED certified. While these steps alone cannot stop global climate change, they indicate what an economy not thoroughly controlled by capitalists and the 'market' can do.

Right now bourgeois environmentalism consists of finding a technological ‘silver bullet’ to ‘solve’ the environmental crises of global warming, dying species, non-sustainable agriculture and fishing, peak oil, chemical contamination, water and nitrate shortages, among others -all within the confines of the market. Bourgeois economists interested in the environmental crisis, all advocate a ‘go slow’ approach, so as not to injure capitalist profitability. This is the approach of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. This was their position at Copenhagen. This is what is behind the ‘cap & trade’ system they advocate, which will make carbon a commodity, affordable to wealthy corporations, but do little to slow climate change. And who is behind this new form of derivatives? Goldman Sachs is already operating a carbon-trading desk. They want to make everything in the world - water, air, the weather - a commodity. And if this does not work, their plan is to build 'fortresses' around their centers of wealth - on a national, regional or even a local basis, when ecological deterioration gets too great.

To give you an idea of where these people are coming from, here is a quote from Larry Summers, Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary, World Bank chief economist, and one of Obama’s chief economic advisors: “The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

Building on Mike Davis' investigation of this "Planet of Slums" (reviewed below) you could even say that the health of the environment is measured by the size of capitalist cities. As capitalist agricultural methods like mechanization, chemicalization and monopoly increase; water, air, soil conditions deteriorate; and pollution spreads - more and more traditional farmers and peasants see their livelihoods destroyed, and are forced to move to the cities. In the U.S., small farmers were ruined in the depression and Dust Bowl, and continuing corporatization of farming has done the same to American agriculture, ruining small farmers and depopulating the rural areas - though perhaps without the same dire conditions as faced in Bangladesh, Mexico City or Kinshasa. In contrast, Marx always advocated spreading the population and solving the contradiction between town and country. Instead, the contradictions are getting worse.

For bourgeois environmentalism, the health of immediate capitalist profits is primary over the environment. And this will never change, up to and including any ecological collapse. I quote from Foster: “We should not underestimate capitalism’s capacity to accumulate in the midst of the most blatant ecological destruction, to profit from environmental degradation and to continue to destroy the earth to the point of no return…because the system does not have an internal (or external) regulatory mechanism that causes it to reorganize. There is no ecological counterpart to the business cycle.”

Foster’s work provides a revolutionary tool to undermine the capitalist system, and restore the earth. Capital cannot survive without profiting from 'growth.' It literally cannot live in a finite world - a limit which it has reached. Without seeing the intimate and undying link between capital accumulation and non-sustainability, no environmental movement can succeed.

And I bought it at MayDay Books!
Red Frog, 2/14/2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Fellow Commodity Wants to Warn You...


supreme court rules...Money talks........shit walks.

“...the Supreme Court will remain what it has been during the greater part of its existence of the United States—a bulwark of the propertied class against the propertyless”.
“...(It is)... an ILLUSION that it is an impartial and objective body composed of apolitical men with a deep and abiding sense of justice, dedicated primarily and at all times to the defense of the liberties and freedoms guaranteed to all by the Bill of Rights”.

The above brief excerpts are from “The SUPREME COURT, Watch dog of Capitalism”. Socialist Labor Party 1971


Stop It: The Play’s Not the Thing

“Rock and Roll,” by Tom Stoppard, first produced June 2006, England – Park Square Theatre, St. Paul, 2010

Tom Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia, and his real name is Straussler. He’s written several plays about events in Eastern Europe, mostly from the position of an anarchist or perhaps petit-bourgeois intellectual. Before it opened, this play had ‘good vibrations,’ as it were. It was ostensibly about the Plastic People of the Universe, an underground rock band in Prague that just wanted to play rock and roll. The resistance of the Plastics helped mobilize youth against the Husak regime. Husak was put in power after Alexander Dubcek was deposed by the 1968 Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia.

I saw the Plastics at the Cedar last year, and they were great. Four of the original members played. They are gaunt, tall, serious rockers. They exude more gravitas than 99% of most American rock bands. They do not speak much English. They are self-taught musicians. They refused to cut their hair, change their lyrics or their heavy, experimental, edgy sound, no matter how much pressure was applied by the secret police. For this they were repeatedly jailed by the Husak regime in the 70s for refusing to play what they were told.

The play, however, is really two plays in one. One play is about the situation in Czechoslovakia, seen through the eyes of three people - a British Communist intellectual, a Plastics fan and an intellectual dissident close to what becomes Charter 77. The other play is about, yes, Syd Barrett, the demented genius behind the early albums of Pink Floyd, And also about several generations of English Barrett fans - presumably including Stoppard. Barrett left Floyd, recorded two great, invisible solo albums, lost his mind, then retreated to the streets of Cambridge, England for many years as the village ‘crazy.’ Neither the Plastics or Barrett really ever make an appearance. The play constantly alternates between a drawing room in Cambridge and run-down apartment in Prague, but it is the spirit of Barrett as a Greek “Pan” that entrances the play and the players, not the developments in Prague. The professor’s daughter and grand-daughter become protectors of the errant Barrett, and he is the unseen presence that animates the English.

Not one song by the Plastics is used in the whole play. Hard to believe. There is not one nightclub, but many spun records. Music by the Stones, Floyd, and the Velvet Underground (the Velvet Revolution, remember?) play instead. Instead of creating a parallel between a Plastics fan in Czechoslovakia and perhaps the insurrectionary spirit of a Stones fan in Britain listening to “Street Fighting Man,” or of British pirate radio – Stoppard for the most part clearly comes down on the side of this wonderful life in Britain. His Cambridge ‘don’ and Communist professor stays a ‘Tankie’ (supporter of the ’68 Soviet intervention) until finally deciding to back Charter 77 ten years later, after the Plastics are again jailed. Rock is not to be taken seriously by 'intellectuals,' so it is interesting that it is the subject of this play. This play is an attempt to show the liberating effects of rock and roll by a clear fan, Stoppard, but it fails because it doesn’t really link politics and rock.

The play, of course, shows how the Stalinist position of ‘socialist realism’ or ‘folk art,’ at the expense of all other styles, undermined the Czechoslovak workers state. Czech youth and intellectuals like Vaclav Havel united on the demand for ‘freedom of music.’ Havel was himself a poet and a rock fan too. Really quite a simple thing to grant, you’d think. The transformation of the 'don' from the most die-hard supporter of the bureaucracy to an anti-capitalist anti-Soviet dissident is the intellectual thread that connects the play together.

However, the play also unintentionally shows the commodification of even ‘rock and roll’ by capital. The play ends with a performance by the Stones in Prague; not a performance by the Plastics in London. That is significant. The Stones penetrate the eastern bloc. And bank capital (not 'tank' capital) penetrates the eastern bloc. But not visa versa. The Stones were at one time problem-children, even for western capital. Now, from 40 years later, they are just another product sold to entertain the aging youth. After all, our greatest opium is not religion – it is entertainment.

And I didn’t see it at Mayday Books….
Red Frog, February 8, 2010